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Around mile 20 of the 26-mile Boston Marathon, runners come upon an incline called Heartbreak Hill. Runners hit a fatigue point at a time when the course calls for some tough slogging before the stretch run to the finish line. Rookie runners are known to pull out in agony at this point in the race.

Has our presidential election cycle reached a Heartbreak Hill of sorts? We have about six weeks before the Pennsylvania primary with nothing major on the horizon, after a flurry of primaries in a tightly compressed calendar cycle of about the same duration that was forecast to settle the issue in both parties.

Instead, the Democratic primary remains very much in doubt and seems to be teetering on the brink of a knock-down drag-out brawl. Prior to this there had been commentary talking about all the excitement the Democratic race engendered, with the first viable black and first viable female as the final two candidates. It brought a slew of new voters into the process and has been heralded as giving our democracy a badly needed boost of participation after years of declining voter turnouts.

But now these rookie participants have to endure the kind of long, protracted campaign battle that galvanizes voters into opposing camps and disillusions the less zealous among us about the whole process.

One of these two is going to lose. Current conventional wisdom is running one of two ways. It is either older women — described by acid-tongued Maureen Dowd as “shoulder pad feminists,” in reference to a fashion disaster prevalent in the late 70s and 80s, when the battle for gender equality was at its fiercest — being disillusioned and angry at a lesser qualified male shoving aside the more qualified, older female candidate. Or it has the younger, better educated and more idealistic Obama supporters disillusioned by the campaign regressing to the hard-hitting rhetoric associated with the Bush/Clinton dynastic wars.

The fallout of this scenario suggests older women cross over for McCain under the belief that, if it has to be a man, let it be the more qualified one rather than the upstart who stole it from the better qualified female. Or the scenario suggests younger voters repudiate the Bush/Clinton Dynastic War plan and go for McCain, based on his reputation for candor and bipartisan cooperation. The fact McCain garners incredible sympathy for being smeared by the Bush operation in South Carolina in 2000 doesn’t hurt, either. Tactically, having the Republican standard-bearer be the candidate most screwed over by the current, highly unpopular president of the same party is likely the only chance Republicans have to forestall being on the wrong side of a landslide this cycle.

So, the energized electorate is experiencing a campaign the likes of which we have not seen since 1952, when the two parties last had open primary elections without an incumbent president or vice president running in one party or the other, and looks at this primary incline with incredible trepidation. It’s truly a Heartbreak Hill for the hearts and minds of the voters.

Added to the dreaded nastiness poised to erupt on the Democratic side of the road are the battles over “Super Delegates” and the Michigan and Florida delegates. Posturing, claims and counter-claims about process fairness will be sprinkled in amongst the attacks and counterattacks about candidate readiness and civility.

One candidate is going to pull up lame on this Heartbreak Hill. Unfortunately, so too — it appears — will many first-time entrants into the process, disillusioned by what it takes to get to the finish line under the arcane rules of the road established by the Democratic National Committee that keeps the process in doubt.

Mr. Woollacott is president and founder of Renaissance Group International Inc., a market research and consulting firm focusing on the information technology market. Contact him directly at gwoollacott@cs.com.

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