Race and Gender Make Democrats' Field Historic

Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina is likely to be a formidable contender in 2008.
Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina is likely to be a formidable contender in 2008. (By Kathy Willens -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Democrats moved a step closer yesterday to what shapes up as one of the most historic and compelling contests ever for their party's presidential nomination, a study in contrasting styles and candidacies in which race and gender play central roles in the competition.

At center stage stand Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who set up his presidential exploratory committee yesterday, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who is set to make clear her intentions soon. Never has a party begun a nomination contest with its two most celebrated candidates a woman and an African American.

The 2008 nomination contest that will play out over the coming year is far more than a two-person race. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina has already established himself as a genuine contender for the nomination, and the rest of the prospective Democratic field is among the strongest in years.

But initially, the electricity will be generated by the Clinton and Obama candidacies. The news media will find the story line irresistible, and Democrats around the country are eagerly anticipating the competition. "Senator Obama's got the magic, but Hillary Clinton's got the muscle," said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist who is neutral in the nomination campaign. "This is going to be a titanic fight between energy and charisma on one hand and money and organization on the other."

There are many ways to describe the differences in the two candidacies. Obama will cast the contest as the future vs. the past. Clinton can counter with experience vs. inexperience. Obama opposed the Iraq war from the beginning; Clinton long supported it but has become more critical over time. Clinton begins as the candidate of the party establishment, while Obama will attempt to mount a challenge that draws new voters into the process.

Each will have to overcome perceived liabilities. Many Democrats fear Clinton cannot win a general election because of the baggage she carries from the administration of her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Others see her as so cautious and careful that she cannot convey the warmth and authenticity many voters want in a president.

Obama's readiness to serve as president at a time of such uncertainty and danger in the world will clearly be questioned as he moves into active campaigning. Nor has he faced the competition and scrutiny of a presidential race. Making the transition from political phenomenon to serious aspirant for the presidency could prove to be a significant challenge.

"I think he very much recognizes that if this is just about hoisting the icon, it's an empty exercise and one probably doomed to failure," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist. "But if it is a movement for real political change at the grass roots, it can be very powerful."

Neither will have the luxury of missteps. Unlike other candidates, they will have their every move and every mistake magnified by the media lens that will follow them at every step.

The coming campaign will provide ample opportunity for Democratic voters to decide what they want in their nominee, and in Clinton and Obama they will have strikingly different models to choose from.

"An Obama campaign would bank on an idea that voters are looking for inspirational and motivational leadership, that rises above the traditional political calculations," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, who is neutral in the race. "The Clinton campaign is hoping that voters put a premium on experience and a long record of fighting the good fight and making a difference."

A few years ago, an Obama-style candidacy would have been seen as implausible, given the fact that the 45-year-old politician has been in the Senate for just two years. Today, with an apparent yearning among the electorate for a break from the divisive politics of the past decade, his freshness may be seen as an asset.

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