The contrast could not have been more glaring. On March 5, Senator John McCain, the nominee of the Republican Party, visited the White House fresh from his victory over his last remaining opponent, conservative Mike Huckabee, to receive the formal endorsement of President Bush. The party all united behind him is now excitedly waiting to face the Democratic nominee in November�s presidential election.

While the Republicans exult in the orderly conclusion of their party�s nomination process, the Democrats are in a state of virtual disarray. The momentum of Barack Obama who had accumulated a string of victories in eleven states was stalled, at least temporarily, when he lost in the crucial states of Texas and Ohio to Hillary Clinton. Before that, it looked as he would knock her out of the race by decisively defeating her in one or both of the states.

Primaries are the process by which the two main parties elect their candidates for the presidential election. In order to win the Democratic party�s nomination, at least 2,025 pledged delegates are needed. These are awarded to each candidate according to a complex formula based on the number of votes received in each state. Neither candidate has reached this magic number thus far. Despite his recent losses, Obama has stayed ahead of Hillary Clinton by more than one hundred delegates. But the process may have reached a stalemate. It has been estimated that even if either candidate wins 60 per cent of the votes in the remaining states, the resulting delegate count will still not be sufficient to give either a clear victory.

With neither candidate receiving the critical number of delegates, Democratic party leaders are worried that the two rivals may damage each other in the ongoing internecine fight to such a degree that Senator McCain, a seasoned politician, may win the presidential election on Nov 4. Also, an unsettled election may be decided by �super delegates�, a group of Democratic party officials such as state governors, senators and congressmen and former presidents, with dubious legitimacy.

An analysis of the support which Democratic nominees are receiving from their constituencies is very interesting. Obama has been in the US Senate for one term and was virtually unknown until he joined the presidential race over a year ago. He has generated a sense of youthful excitement, an aura of innocent idealism, powerfully fuelled by a yearning for change not seen since the days when John F. Kennedy inspired America in the early sixties. He is a powerful and eloquent speaker who draws support from the young, college graduates and affluent segments of the electorate, and overwhelming loyalty from African-Americans who recognise that he embodies their best hope for electing the first black president. Besides, his early exposure to a galaxy of cultures � including the Islamic world � will, he claims, give him a unique advantage in dealing with world leaders.

Although Obama has received support from across the racial spectrum, his strengths in some cases have also become his vulnerabilities. His middle name, Hussein, has incited the derision of right-wing conservatives who accuse him of being a closet Muslim, a product of an Indonesian madressah cast in the Pakistani mould, and an Al Qaeda sympathiser who took his oath of office as a senator on a copy of the Quran in place of the Bible.

Some supporters of Israel have accused him of insufficient dedication to the security interests of that country. Senator Obama has repeatedly denied all these allegations, affirming that he is a practising Christian. The rumours, however, continue to grow on the Internet and are kept alive by conservative talk-show hosts. So far they have had no discernable impact.

Unlike Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton is an experienced, battle-hardened politician who commands support of a formidable political machine and of her husband, the former President Clinton, one of the shrewdest politicians in the country. She is supported by a large number of women, a majority of Latino voters and older, less affluent white voters. Recently, in the face of a string of defeats, she has sharpened her attacks on Obama, arguing that he is too inexperienced to take on the presidency. Her initial support for the Iraq war, a major US policy blunder, has become less of an issue since the weak state of the economy recently supplanted the war as the number one concern of the American public.

Senator Obama has held back from responding in kind to attacks from Hillary Clinton or McCain, the Republican opponent. His political advisers are unsure how to react to them. If he adopts the same strident tone as his rivals, then his reputation as someone who is a unifier, a proponent of change, who stays above the fray, will be tarnished. Doing nothing will generate a sense of weakness. Ultimately, a solution to the impasse may emerge that is already being talked about � the so-called Dream Team that would have both of them aboard, one as the potential president, the other vice-president. However, the next question would then be who of the two should head the team as the presidential nominee.