SHELBYVILLE, Indiana (Reuters) - U.S. presidential primaries often divide party loyalists, but the drawn-out battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may leave some Democrats too bitter to band together against the Republicans in November.
Indiana homemaker Ginger Smith, 48, said she was with Clinton all the way and would not vote for Obama.
“I believe a woman needs to be in the presidency,” Smith said. “He’s too smooth and doesn’t have enough experience. ... I don’t trust him, that’s my gut feeling.”
And if the Illinois senator is the Democratic nominee?
“I’ll vote for McCain,” Smith said, referring to Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. But on reflection, she tempered her response to say, “I probably won’t vote.”
While party leaders insist Democrats will mend fences once a nominee is chosen — which could happen as late as the party’s convention in August — the increasing bitterness and very nature of the battle between Obama and Clinton, a New York senator, may make healing harder than usual.
Thirty percent of Clinton supporters said they would not vote for Obama in November if he were the nominee, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week. Twenty-two percent of Obama voters said they would not vote for Clinton.
Obama leads Clinton in both the popular vote and number of delegates who select the party’s nominee at the convention in Denver. Each has won some of the state-by-state contests, and they face off again on Tuesday in Indiana and North Carolina.
The eventual winner will face McCain in the November presidential election.
Voters in both Democratic camps have said the long, negative contest has poisoned them against the rival candidate.
“I’m increasingly frustrated by Hillary Clinton and the way she has treated Obama,” said Judy Trane, a 41-year-old Kansas mother of three. Trane said her initial excitement over Democratic prospects for November had faded to disappointment and near despair as a result of the bitter campaign.
“It is so sad. I so want the party to do well,” Trane said. “I’ve had several people say to me, ‘I couldn’t possibly vote for the other Democratic candidate.’”
The bitterness of the campaign is not the only thing that could hamper healing. The fact both candidates represent a dream — Clinton would be the first female U.S. president, Obama the first black — adds a burden.
Democrats fear that black voters, traditional supporters, may desert the party if Clinton is nominated instead of Obama.
Obama supporter Chantelle Curry, who is black, said she would probably vote for Clinton if push came to shove. But she knows a lot of people who will not.
“I’ve heard my friends and family say that,” said Curry, a 40-year-old nurse living in Indiana.
North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene said the race issue could go the other way, with some voters unwilling to support a black candidate. Clinton, too, has no chance of winning over some Democrats.
“For a lot of people who won’t vote for Obama, race is an issue ... much like those who hate Hillary Clinton won’t vote for her,” Greene said. “The degree to which you can blame that on a long, drawn-out campaign is pretty minimal.”
Greene said parties had reunited despite bitter battles in previous primaries, and this time would be no exception. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and Clinton herself have also said they are confident the rifts will mend.
“I think we’ll have a unified Democratic Party once we have a nominee,” Clinton said on Saturday in North Carolina.
“I have no doubt about that because no matter how passionately either my supporters or Senator Obama’s supporters feel about us, they have much more in common in terms of what we want in our country than they do with Senator McCain and the Republicans, because that would be more of the same.”
Some Democrats do not see it that way.
Obama supporter Julie McCormack, a coffee shop worker from Scottsdale, Arizona, said the shrill and endless Democratic contest prompted her to check out McCain on the Internet.
“The two of them bickering — I just can’t watch them on TV anymore, I just can’t watch it. All of that really annoyed me and bothered me,” she said. “I am leaning toward McCain because he seems like a decent person.”
(Additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Ellen Wulfhorst in North Carolina; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/