Hillary backs away from ... McCain?

Hillary Clinton told a North Carolina crowd of Democrats that she didn’t think her opponent really represented Democratic values. However, she wasn’t talking about Barack Obama but John McCain, who appears to have garnered a lot of momentum in the Democratic primary race. Hillary responded to polling that shows a significant number of Democrats intend to defect to McCain if their favorite Democrat doesn’t win the nomination (via TMV):

Hillary Clinton pleaded for partisan unity on Thursday, urging Democrats not to abandon their party to vote for John McCain if their preferred candidate fails to secure the nomination.

Clinton was asked by a questioner in the audience here what she would tell frustrated Democrats who might consider voting for McCain in the general election out of spite.

“Please think through this decision,” Clinton said, laughing and emphasizing the word “please.” …

A Gallup poll released this week indicated that 28 percent of Clinton’s supporters would back McCain should the New York senator lose her quest for the Democratic nomination. That compares to the 19 percent of Obama supporters who say they will favor McCain should Clinton be the party’s nominee.

I never knew how politically adept McCain could be. Not only did he come back from the dead in the Republican race, it looks as though he might seriously challenge for the Democratic nomination as well. Give him a few more weeks, and he may find himself as part of the floor fight in Denver.

Does this represent a real threat to Democrats in the general election? The hard feelings of primary races have created problems in past elections, but usually the party patches up any rifts in the interest of unity. However, this primary’s length and even split is unique in the four decades of the current system. Only the Walter Mondale-Gary Hart race came close, and look how well that worked out for the Democrats in 1984. It didn’t generate the kind of passions and identity-politics baiting that has taken place this time, either — and it didn’t last as long as this race appears it will.

Hillary has not-so-subtly signaled that her loss would result in precisely these kinds of defections, so this effort seems a little hypocritical. She made a comparison between herself, Obama, and McCain regarding experience that quite obviously put McCain above Obama, and the infamous “3 AM” ad works better for McCain than it does Hillary. She’s already arguing that her base is much more likely to walk out of the Democratic coalition than Obama’s, and that only her nomination will prevent the Democrats from a disastrous November.

Mostly, though, the sight of a major Democratic contender begging her followers not to vote Republicans shows the disintegration of the Democratic campaign better than anything else. Have we seen McCain having to make a plea to Republicans not to vote Democratic?