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.
For all the potential history-in-the-making of their candidacies, neither Clinton nor Obama enters the campaign primarily because of race or gender. Obama is the son of a Kenyan father and white American mother, but his candidacy is not comparable to that of Jesse L. Jackson in 1984, when the civil rights leader first sought the presidency. Jackson's candidacy was largely about breaking racial barriers. Although Obama's could become that, his appeal appears not fundamentally based on his race.
Clinton has risen to the top of the Democratic field not principally because she is a woman but because she is part of a power couple that has dominated the party since the early 1990s, as well as by virtue of her long experience as a party activist, first lady and now senator.
Still, there is no way to underestimate the significance of race and gender in the coming campaign. "They certainly have not practiced identity politics, but it is a huge part of who they are when they go out and present themselves as presidential candidates," said Democratic strategist Anita Dunn.
The election of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the nation's first female House speaker underscored to many Democrats the potential power of Clinton's candidacy, and Clinton strategists agree. "I think a serious female candidate for president will generate an awful lot of excitement and enthusiasm, especially among younger voters and among women," Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said in an e-mail message.
Party strategists say it would be a mistake to cast the Democratic contest as a two-person race, even though Clinton and Obama occupy a significant amount of space and both may be able to raise more money than others in the field.
Obama and Clinton advisers already see Edwards as a formidable candidate, in part because of his strong support in Iowa, whose caucuses will kick off the nominating calendar. The rest of the prospective field includes two of the most senior senators in the party and two governors with notable attributes. Waiting on the sidelines is former vice president Al Gore.
"There is such a compulsion on the part of the political community and political media community to create a steel cage match between Clinton and Obama you can almost see the fight posters," Axelrod said. "That's not the way he views it."
Still, there is no doubting the amount of space Obama and Clinton occupy as the campaign begins -- or the significance if either ends up as the Democratic nominee in 2008.