Well, it’s eyes down for a full house – again. After the post super-Tuesday odds and sods primary weekend — Nebraska, Louisiana, basically a trash states playoff — comes what’s been variously known as the Chesapeake, Potomac, Triangle primaries – Virginia, Maryland, DC. No-one much thought that any of these competitions would be decisive, which is possibly why they were bunched together in such ungainly ways. But all four candidates in both parties are fighting for their lives, and every metro station, big hotel and god help us even the larger Starbucks outlets, have a full complement of election birders, and they’re all getting more than a little shirty. “Errr yew ragistarred tao vote tamarrar?” said one no-nonsense parka’d woman bailing me up outside the Barnes and Noble.

She was union, for Hillary and sent me into Hugh Grant “well uh I’m not actually uh American” mode, at which point I got the universal five-minutes-to-midnight look of the campaigner – not so much “oh do excuse me”, more “how dare you waste my time by not being eligible”. And all this is over two candidates with virtually identical policy positions. You would have to wonder what sort of clashes the actual campaign is going to call out.

But there’s an achingly long way to go before that, and both parties are their own worse enemies at this stage. For the first time in this contest, delegate counts in the Democrat rates have diverged – Obama now has a lead of 30 or 40 over Clinton in pledged delegates, while Clinton has a lead of 60 or so once superdelegates are factored in. Superdelegates are office holders, governors, party officials, Kennedy love children etc etc, who are technically unpledged, but can be pretty reasonably allocated. The superdelegate system was developed in the 80s as a way of dealing with the problem of a split convention – at some point, it was thought, the supers could pile in and throw their whole vote to one candidate, resolving the impasse. Oh, and preserve the power of the party machine, did we forget to mention that?

Wiser hacks would have always realised that the system might run the risk of pissing off the rank-and-file – but always figured they could sell it on the basis of party unity. What they didn’t count on was the degree tow which people would become alienated from politics of any sort, in such a fundamental way – and that one candidate would appear who would represent, to many people, the only person who they could support or give their energy to. Especially up against the Clintons – and dynastic presidential politics in general. The problem for the Democratic party as a whole would be the superdelegates effectively canceling out the popular Obama vote to push Hillary over the edge, at which point John McCain would became the next-President most likely.

Indeed, it’s even more complicated than that, for many of the state votes aren’t yet finalised. The eight or so competitions that were caucuses have merely chosen delegates to their state convention, and there is no absolute guarantee that such delegates will vote the way their precincts elected them to, should they decide that the state should go decisively one way or the other – or should delegate Bilbo from Whack Fats Wyoming wake up in the Cheyenne Best Western with no pants and copies of a bunch of photos, at which point, as they say, the delegate’s vote has been recommitted. In the old paddleboat days, pilots spent their whole life on one stretch of the river, because it took a lifetime to learn the banks and tides, and US politics works the same way. Every state has some contingent of operatives who know the arcane delegate rules of each party, local identities, factions, etc etc. It’s an entire political system run on the basis of a couple of thousand Noel Crichton-Brownes, which is why the prospect of a slag-off between the machine and the rank in file in the Democrats is giving everyone conniptions.

Yet as tough as it is for the Democrats, at least that is a real competition. For the Republicans, John McCain has no serious rival and he’s still losing – and not merely to Mike Huckabee, but to his own machine. In the trash primary weekend, McCain’s suppporters got so desperate at the Huck’s clear win in Kansas, and narrow boost in Louisiana that they stopped the counting in Washington, with 1000 ballots left to count and McCain leading by only 250.

The Washington “loss” – a full count is now being done – makes it technically impossible for Huckabee to win the nomination, and looks like an attempt to put the onus on him to drop out. It also spared McCain the further indignity of a triple-barrelled loss.

McCain’s other problem is the recent announcement that the military is going to aim for the death penalty in the military special tribunal trial of six Guantanamo inmates. Since McCain is stunningly liberal – ie anti-torture – and the Conservatives would like to be attaching the alligator clips personally, the issue is going to further jam McCain up. It seems unlikely that he will back the trials in their current form – and if he did, he’d lose another big slice of the middle ground.

But Mccain’s not the only one facing a triple-decker loss. Hillary’s weekend zero-for-five disaster – she even lost the Virgin Islands though, given her namesake predecessor, they’re not exactly Clinton territory – prompted a reorganisation of what was called her “double-decker” team, a polite term for a dysfunctional inner and outer circle continually at each other’s throats. Too little, too late and possibly irrelevant in any case – the Potomac states and district have a large black population, high education levels and large student population – all Obama groups.

Mind you, every group is now an Obama group – Saturday’s rout, and the Maine loss in particular, indicates that Clinton has no home territory, which is why her campaigners are displaying the white flecks of desperation. I can’t help but sympathise with them – they see Obama as — though they would not use this language — a third-way candidate in the Blairite mold, ready to sell a reformist program down the Potomac, with or without a pilot. Clinton has increasingly taken on John Edwards’s more leftish message and constituency, and the split is resolving into left-right terms in the minds of some, especially in the labour movement.

Neverthless, I reckon it’ll be zero-for-three again, with Obama taking each by 60-70%. McCain will get DC, but Huckabee will kill him in Virginia and run him close in Maryland. This round may be the most disastrous for both of them, with few big competitions ahead to really regain a sense of command.

Forget the river. It’s the proverbial creek they’re both up.