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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks, as Hillary Clinton looks on, during the CNN Democratic presidential debate, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, April 14, 2016. (Chang W. Lee / The New York Times)

New York: The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

William Rivers Pitt

On the eve of the New York primary, Secretary Clinton and Sen. Sanders went at it tooth and claw in a CNN debate that may as well have been titled “CLINTON! (sanders),” thanks to CNN’s efforts. To wit: It was a demonstrably rigged game. The audience was packed with howling Clinton fans, and the moderators interrupted Sanders like they were getting paid an extra dollar every time they did it. Sanders: “Well I believe (‘Thank you, Senator’) we should (‘Thank you, Senator’) be (‘Thank you, Senator’) doing more (‘Your time is up, Senator’) for (‘Thank you, Senator’),” while Clinton was allowed to stemwind all she pleased. She invoked 9/11 exactly 43 seconds into the debate — I counted the ticks — and did so twice more again before the curtain came down. It was Sanders’ best debate performance to date, but it may be too late.

Simply put, if (when) Sanders loses New York, the clock will begin ticking toward his eventual withdrawal, and the “news” media will get the Clinton v. Trump contest they’ve been gibbering for (unless Cruz shoots the gap). If Sanders doesn’t win Pennsylvania next week, he risks being written off by the media as a mere protest candidate unworthy of consideration, and the Clinton campaign will be able to pivot to the general election. California isn’t until June.

Matters are far more funkadelic on the Republican side of the show. Ted Cruz did one of those insipid “Town Hall” things on MSNBC last night, hosted by the execrable Chuck Todd, and it made one wonder if a Donald Trump nomination might be preferable for the planet in general. Cruz is as smooth as quicksilver on a countertop, glib, engaging and deeply dangerous. Casting himself as the next Ronald Reagan, he flatly claimed that conquering the world is the essence of the United States, peddled the ridiculous flat tax idea and coughed up the Planned Parenthood fetal tissue sale canard. Todd’s reply to that last bit of nonsense? “We’ll be right back after these messages.”

The “Trump Inevitability” argument has taken a stout beating of late, especially after the Cruz campaign out-generaled Trump for delegates in Colorado and Louisiana, which inspired Trump to basically declare war on the RNC. Trump’s unprepared shoot-from-the-hip, I’m-so-good-I-don’t-have-to-try style lost him those delegates, and has even landed him in hot soup in Pennsylvania. Why? Football.

See, Pennsylvania is like Alabama when it comes to football. While the Steelers and Eagles reign supreme, the college teams are worshipped and adored. On Wednesday, Trump went to Pittsburgh and said, “I know a lot about Pennsylvania, and it’s great. How’s Joe Paterno?” The potential consequences of the rank laziness on the part of Trump’s campaign evinced in this requires, for those who don’t follow sports, a bit of explanation.

1.) Joe Paterno, the former 45-year God-coach of Penn State who was fired after a child sex scandal involving an assistant coach, died four years ago. It was in the papers.

2.) Trump was in Pittsburgh when he said this, home of the University of Pittsburgh and its own football program. They don’t give a damn about Joe Paterno, and by asking about him while holding a cheat sheet, it made Trump seem like he didn’t know where he was or didn’t care. Western part of Pennsylvania: pissed.

3.) The central part of Pennsylvania that Penn State calls home still worships Paterno, scandal be damned. Trump talked about Paterno as if he was still alive, which raised hackles from State College to Harrisburg to Ford City to Ridgburg. You don’t know JoePa died? Hell with you. There goes the center of the state.

If you want Pennsylvania, you know these things by rote. It was another example of the man not caring to understand the ground he was fighting for, and not giving a damn anyway. A sports reference may seem inconsequential in the main, but this is Pennsylvania and Paterno. Many elections have turned on a candidate blowing a sports reference and convincing the voters that he or she doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the region they covet.

To bring Tuesday’s vote back into it, this is the equivalent of campaigning in New York City without knowing which borough the Yankees play in. It matters, and Pennsylvania just got a lot more interesting thanks to Trump and a dead college football coach.

Yeah, it’s been a weird year and it’s fixing to get a whole lot weirder, especially on the Republican side. Three heavies in the New England GOP contingent — Massachusetts Gov. Jim Baker, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta — have already said they won’t be going to the convention. More are sure to follow as this mayhem unspools.

“It’s strange that words are so inadequate,” wrote TS Eliot. “Yet, like the asthmatic struggling for breath, so the lover must struggle for words.” I think, before this is over, we will all be struggling for the breath to find the words.

William Rivers Pitt is Truthout’s senior editor and lead columnist.

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