AS THE GOOD TIDINGS FOR HILLARY CLINTON came in Tuesday night, Philly Mayor Michael Nutter told an amped crowd of her supporters that, as far as he’s concerned, “A win is a win.”

The mayor is absolutely right. With a comfortable 10-point margin, Hillary Clinton handily won the Pennsylvania primary. Equally true, Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination more than two months ago on Super Tuesday.

The media, obligated to fill airtime and column inches since the previous round of primaries six weeks ago, manufactured two fairy tales to keep us tuned in to a horserace that for all practical purposes has already ended. First, they invented a prolonged bedtime story about some dark, mysterious, almost primeval region known as Pennsylvania. This troll-like land, exempt from the rest of America, we’ve been told, is inhabited by some strange exceptional species of hairy-armed, bushy-browed near-humans with sloping foreheads, who spend their days dragging bowling balls through the woods and then waste away their nights oiling their .12 gauges and knocking back brewskies. The second tale: that how these bizarre creatures eventually voted would somehow be crucial in determining the outcome of the Democratic race.

But the Obama campaign itself, in a purloined internal document that made the rounds of the Web weeks ago, conceded that Pennsylvania would be lost. And that it would matter little. There could be little suspense in a state that was demographically the most favorable to Clinton, with one-third of voters on Tuesday age 65 or older.

The fundamentals of the Democratic nomination fight have not changed. After Pennsylvania, the only way Hillary Clinton can capture the nomination is the same way she could before Pennsylvania. By overturning the protocols of democracy and persuading unelected superdelegates to nullify the results of the primaries and caucuses, by taking the nomination away from the candidate who will have the greatest number of elected delegates and popular votes.

It’s about that simple. Clinton’s net gain of delegates this week looks to be less than 10, still leaving her 150 behind. And still behind by a half-million popular votes. I’ll spare you the math, and the reality check that comes with it, but there still remains no plausible way for Clinton to make up the difference. On top of that, her campaign coffers are dry.

NOT TO SAY THAT PENNSYLVANIA was some sort of picnic for Barack Obama. Hardly. The needed majority of superdelegates who have yet to disclose their preference have been anxiously waiting for some signal event that will make it easy for them to come out and endorse Obama and get this thing finished. Looks like they, and Obama, will have to wait a couple more weeks until the next round of voting, in North Carolina (which he has no chance of losing) and Indiana (where he’s up five in the polls).

In the meantime, the rest of us are about to wallow through the nastiest stretch yet of the Democratic campaign. Hillary Clinton has already proved she’s more than willing to take her crusade as deep as necessary into the muck. In the fight for Pennsylvania, she vowed to “obliterate” Iran if necessary, didn’t flinch from running attack ads tying Obama to Osama, and readily joined in with Stephanopoulos and Gibson of ABC when they sandbagged Obama for his association with a graybeard former ’60s radical. It was an appalling enough performance that only hours after her Pennsylvania win, a New York Times editorial as much as unendorsed her, accusing Clinton of becoming “the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11,” running an ad “torn right from Karl Rove’s playbook.”

So we know what tack Clinton will take in the days to come. The ultranegative tone was set during her Pennsylvania victory speech, filled with adolescent mocking of Obama’s theme of hope. One can only imagine the millions of turned-off newly registered young Democrats who won’t vote for her even if she somehow steals the nomination.

There’s only one major piece of this puzzle that remains in play. Which way will Obama turn in the next two weeks? In the last few days, as Clinton slashed and trashed, Obama found himself drawn down in the fight. Some of his advisers want him to quickly regain the posture of a front-runner and not respond to Clinton’s baiting. Others around Obama are urging him to get a lot tougher, to once and for all punch her lights out and end the charade.

But he already did that a few months ago. And there seems little point in swinging at a ghost.

LA Weekly