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The Clintonian Candidate

It's hard to name a prominent moment when, like Clinton pushing welfare reform, he deviated from party orthodoxy. Sorry, senator, but voting for class action lawsuit reform doesn't cut it. Obama's book features an erudite discussion of the folly, and futility, of resisting globalization -- at which point he summarily announces that he voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement nonetheless. His signature divergence from the other leading candidates in the Democratic field comes from the left: He opposed the Iraq war from the start.

Obama is like Bill Clinton in his natural ease with people and his ability to win them over. A New York Times story about Obama's law school days described how Obama "cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once." As they debated whether to use the term "black" or "African-American," "students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side," the story said. " 'Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me,' " said professor Charles Ogletree.

Sounds like everyone who's ever emerged from a meeting with Bill Clinton.

If Obama is the Clintonian figure in the race, Hillary Clinton may be Al Gore, more disciplined policy wonk than natural politician. Like Gore, Hillary Clinton can be more adroit intellectually than politically; both face the challenge, fair or not, of convincing voters of their "authenticity."

It's hard to know whether the tempered Clinton or the untested Obama will prove the stronger candidate -- or would be the better president. But with both of them in the race, the 2008 campaign presents a twist on the 1992 offer: two Clintons for the price of one.

marcusr@washpost.com


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