In the early days of the Democratic presidential contest, voters partial to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama told pollsters they'd be happy with either one as the party's nominee. That was before the campaign entered its hand-to-hand combat phase.
Recent polling shows that almost 30 percent of Clinton supporters and nearly 20 percent of Obama supporters say that if their preferred candidate doesn't win the nomination, they'll vote Republican.
Perhaps the last place you'd expect to find a Democrat willing to vote for the other party was the California Democratic Party's annual convention last weekend in San Jose. But even among these hard-core activists, people were badmouthing their party's possible presidential nominees. Mention Clinton's name to Obama supporter Charlotte Pierce, and disdain is evident in her voice.
"I just think that Hillary is upset because she thought she was going to rise to the throne, and it's just not happening," Pierce said. She added, "I'm disappointed in what Hillary has done. She's slung a lot of mud very unnecessarily."
Another Obama backer, Quinn Gardner, is so turned off at the thought of a Clinton victory that he's thinking the unthinkable. "It's a question we've been talking about a lot today, saying if Hillary Clinton got the nomination, would you still vote for her," he said.
"I don't know at this point," he said, sighing. "I wish I had a better answer. It's tough."
Nearby, at the Hillary Clinton table, supporter Candace Bashin gave Obama the most backhanded of compliments.
"I think he's a very attractive man," Bashin said. "He looks great in a suit." But she described herself as more of a "policy person." Hillary, she said, "knows her stuff."
Bashin was volunteering with Lisa Simon, who said that even if Obama got the nomination, she wouldn't vote for John McCain. But she knows other Clinton backers who would.
"They're telling me they cannot vote for Obama," Simon said. "They're also telling me that they have real issues with the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright's comments."
Controversy that began last month over inflammatory remarks by Obama's former pastor has been kept alive not only by some conservative critics, but also by the Clinton campaign. They've acknowledged raising the issue in trying to win over undecided superdelegates. And Obama supporters were furious when Clinton adviser James Carville compared New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to Judas when he endorsed the Illinois senator.
The wounds are carefully catalogued by each side. Clinton's backers were outraged when Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy and others called on her to quit the race. Some women blasted Obama for pulling out Clinton's chair for her at a debate, calling it demeaning. The list goes on and on.
"Everybody says this is a really tough campaign," said Democratic campaign consultant Bill Carrick. "The truth is, by contemporary political standards, so far it hasn't been that bad."
Carrick said there's another reason the battle seems so fierce.
"On the Democratic side, there's this frustration about the Bush years, and we've got to win this election, and it's so important to put a Democrat in the White House," Carrick explained. "That feeling tends to lead people to overreact to anything they think is potentially damaging."
Democratic analyst Garry South said that with the nomination likely to be decided by the votes of superdelegates, the potential for damage to the party is real — especially with Obama's black supporters.
"We do not need to be in a situation where our most reliable voter bloc is alienated and turned off by a situation where it looks to them as if the first black potential nominee of this party has the nomination taken away from him by a bunch of power brokers operating in the back room," South said.
With nearly three weeks to go before the next primary, in Pennsylvania, Democrats have plenty of time to mull over various scenarios of disaster. And each candidate's supporters likely will continue to measure and exploit every perceived slight.