Get ready for weeks if not months of a tightly fought Democratic presidential race, while Tuesday night's big winner on the GOP side, John McCain, could soon be sitting on the sidelines, secure in victory, trying hard to raise money and pull together a fractious Republican coalition.
So far, the Democrats have dramatically outdrawn the Republicans at the polls and generated greater enthusiasm among their core constituencies, especially among women, minorities and younger voters. A fierce, protracted contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could sour the good feelings or energize the party even more, depending on how the candidates conduct themselves.
"The pressure to stay nice and positive will be great, but the pressure to go negative will be even greater," said Linda Fowler, a political science professor at Dartmouth College, reflecting the belief that negative campaigning can be effective in a two-person race. "With the Republican nomination settled, reporters will focus on all the Democrats' tit-for-tats and negative attacks, and that could turn off voters."
But Fowler noted there still could be a hidden benefit for the Democrats: "The reciprocal effect is all the energy put into the get-out-the-vote efforts the phone banks and volunteers and that's got to be helpful. For McCain, there are very few places where he has people to knock on doors for him and to give up their Saturdays for him."
Super Tuesday returns gave McCain an enormous lead in GOP delegates and victories over his main rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, in many of the largest states, but he did not necessarily win the hearts of conservatives. Exit polls suggested he still has a lot of work to do in winning over core Republican voters who are disaffected by his past votes on taxes, immigration, and campaign finance reform.
Thus, McCain will wake up this morning a winner but one with little money in the bank and a lot of skeptics among would-be allies.
Right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter are already grumbling about Clinton being more conservative than McCain. But their followers are unlikely to agree, and McCain will almost certainly end up carrying conservative voters in the general election. They could force him to harden his positions on core Republican issues, perhaps jeopardizing his longstanding appeal to moderates and independents.
Meanwhile, various Democratic constituencies will be squaring off against one another at the ballot box, divided equally between Clinton and Obama.
"Given the nature of the coalitions each one has built, it seems they each have half the Democratic Party," said William Carrick, an unaligned Democratic consultant based in California.
Obama, he said, wins among African-Americans, younger voters, independents, and college-educated Democrats. Clinton, he said, wins Hispanics, women, and senior citizens.
While the supporters of the two candidates were looking for different qualities with 64 percent of Obama backers stressing the need for change, according to exit polls in the closely divided swing state of Missouri, and 93 percent of Clinton backers citing experience most seemed likely to support the eventual Democratic nominee.
After all, Clinton and Obama agree on almost all the party's leading issues, suggesting that Democrats have chosen a message before selecting a messenger.
In the horse race to come, Obama is likely to benefit the most from a lack of competition on the GOP side. He has been a more attractive candidate to independent voters, who in many states can choose between voting in the Democratic or Republican race.
With McCain having a big lead in delegates on the GOP side, many more independents will choose to have their votes count in the close Democratic race, probably giving a boost to Obama.
Still, Clinton has advantages of her own, including a more seasoned campaign team and the stamina honed during her husband's two national campaigns.
In the end, some analysts believe, it is possible neither Clinton nor Obama will win a majority of delegates through the primary voting, which would throw the decision to the roughly 20 percent of delegates dubbed "super-delegates" elected officials and state party leaders who are unaligned.
More superdelegates have endorsed Clinton than Obama, but many are expected to reconsider if the primaries are not conclusive.
If so, the contest would go on until the party's convention in Denver this August, stirring up even more attention for the Democrats for good or bad.