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Tests Ahead for Obama

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By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Buyer's remorse was beginning to afflict supporters of Barack Obama before Tuesday's primary election returns showed he had delivered a knockout punch against Hillary Clinton. The young orator who had seemed so fantastic, beginning with his 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech in Iowa, disappointed even his own advisers over the past two weeks, and old party hands mourned that they were stuck with a flawed candidate.

The whipping Obama gave Clinton in North Carolina and his near miss in Indiana transformed that impression. The candidate who delivered the victory speech in Raleigh, N.C., was the Obama of Des Moines, bearing no resemblance to the gloomy, uneasy candidate who had seemed unable to deal with bumps in the campaign road. Returning to his eloquent call for unity, the victorious Obama dismissed in advance Republican criticism of his ideology or his past as the same old partisan bickering that the people hate.

John McCain as the Republican candidate does not like that kind of campaigning, either. But a gentlemanly contest between the old war hero from the past and the advocate of reform from the future probably would guarantee a Democratic takeover of the White House. The Republican Party, suffering from public disrepute, is facing major Democratic gains in each house of Congress -- leaving the defeat of Obama as the sole GOP hope for 2008.

Republicans were cheered and Democrats distressed by an inexperienced Obama's ineptitude in handling adversity the past month. The new Republican consensus considered Obama the weaker of the two Democratic candidates. Indeed, Hillary Clinton had finally shaken off pretensions of entitlement and consigned Bill Clinton to rural America, raising speculation that she would decisively carry Indiana and threaten Obama in North Carolina.

Clinton's failure Tuesday was a product of demographics rather than Obama's campaign skill. Consistently winning more than 90 percent of the African American vote, Obama is unbeatable in a primary where the black electorate is as large as it is in North Carolina (half the registered Democratic vote there). Indiana differed from seemingly similar Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Clinton scored big wins, because it borders Obama's state of Illinois and many of its voters live in the Chicago media market.

As the clear winner and presumptive nominee, Obama unveiled his general election strategy Tuesday in Raleigh. Dismissing McCain's "ideas" as "nothing more than the failed policies of the past," Obama denounced what he called the Republican campaign plan: "Yes, we know what's coming. . . . We've already seen it, the same names and labels they always pin on everyone who doesn't agree with all their ideas."

Thus, Obama seems to be ruling out not only discussion of his 20-year association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but also any identification of the Democratic presidential candidate as "liberal" or as an advocate of higher taxes, higher domestic spending, abortion rights and gun control. These issues appear to be included in what Obama called "attempts to play on our fears and exploit our differences."

The test of Obama's strategy may be his friendship with and support from William Ayers, an unrepentant member of the Weathermen terrorist underground of the 1960s and '70s. Instead of totally disavowing Ayers as he belatedly did his former pastor, Obama potentially deepened his problem by referring to Ayers as just a college professor -- "a guy who lives in my neighborhood." He then compared their relationship to his friendship with conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, just as he compared Wright's racism to his white grandmother's.

Democrats abhor bringing up what Obama calls Ayers's "detestable acts 40 years ago," but they will be brought into the public arena even if that is not McCain's style of politics. A photo of Ayers stomping on the American flag in 2001 has been all over the Internet this week. That was the year Obama accepted a $200 political contribution from Ayers and the year in which the former Weatherman said: "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."

While McCain will not demand a response from Obama, others will. How the prospective nominee handles this will help define whether he is seen as flawed or fantastic in the long campaign ahead.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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