By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008
Lifelong Democrat Kathleen Cowley watches with disdain as huge crowds hang on Sen. Barack Obama's every word. She dismisses Obama's "intolerable logic." She turns the channel on pundits who chalk up Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's primary victories to little more than racism. And she doesn't much care for the notion that while Obama is fresh and inspiring, Clinton is, by implication, old and mean.
"There's just been an attitude that if you aren't voting for Barack Obama, then you're a racist," said Cowley, 49, a mother of four from Massachusetts who has vowed to never back the senator from Illinois. "I just find that intolerable. I feel like when the members of the media talk about how [Obama's supporters] would react, they say, 'Well, we can't take the vote away from African Americans.' Well, excuse me, there's a higher percentage of women."
A Democratic race that a couple of months ago was celebrated as a march toward history -- the chance to nominate the nation's first woman or African American as a major-party candidate -- threatens to leave lingering bitterness, especially among Clinton supporters, whose candidate is running out of ways to win.
Some women, like Cowley, complain that Clinton has been disrespected and mistreated by the media and the political establishment. Many see Obama as equally condescending, dismissing Clinton's foreign policy role as first lady, pulling out her chair for her at debates and suggesting offhand during one debate that she was "likable enough."
"The sexist crap that comes out of people's mouths is really scary to me," said Amilyn Lanning, 38, a Zionsville, Pa., voter who supported Clinton in last month's primary. "There's a lot of the b-word being thrown about, even in jest by comedians. There's a lot of comments made about her pantsuits, and the way she dresses. There's a viciousness."
With equal ire, many African Americans complain about Clinton's negativity and have accused her camp of using Obama's race against him. Her comment that his "support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again" was just the latest in a series of over-the-line comments, some said.
And many among the legions of young voters who have flocked to Obama say their enthusiasm is more about him than about the Democratic Party and it would not necessarily transfer to Clinton if she won the nomination. In Indiana, about six in 10 Obama voters under age 30 said they will be dissatisfied if Clinton is the nominee and about half said the same in North Carolina, according to exit polls.
Nationally, about a quarter of Clinton supporters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll said that if she loses they will ditch the Democratic Party and Obama for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). A similar number of Obama backers said they will pick the Republican this fall if Clinton becomes the nominee. In both Indiana and North Carolina, majorities of African American voters said they will be unhappy if Clinton is at the top of the ticket.
Acutely aware of these dynamics, the campaigns have sought to balance tactics against tact, so that the rift between the two Democrats -- and their backers -- doesn't grow so wide that the winner can't pull the party back together. Since the May 6 contests in Indiana and North Carolina, Obama has tried to ease much of the animosity by turning his attention to McCain, highlighting differences with Clinton only in response to voters or the news media. Clinton has also shifted some of her strategy, running positive ads in West Virginia rather than the negative ones she aired in previous states.
Put together, Clinton's coalition of women and working-class white voters along with Obama's alliance of African Americans and young voters could be a potentially unstoppable Democratic force in the fall. But, at least for now, many on both sides said they have been too put off and have become too embittered to pull together for the party if their candidate isn't on the ballot.
To Veronica Tonay, 48, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a Clinton supporter, Obama has become a pop star, the contestant on "American Idol" who wins votes because he's cute, while the best singer is eliminated.
"We are electing the leader of the free world, and that person has a finger on the nuclear launch code," she said. "It's not about likability." Her stance was cemented when a young woman in one of her classes declared that she wouldn't vote for Clinton because "she is not a beautiful woman."
If Obama is the nominee, Tonay said, McCain will be just fine with her. "In the end, I won't vote for Obama because I don't know who he is, and I don't trust him," she said. "If McCain gets in, he would have a weak presidency, and we would have a Democratic Congress anyway. Obama could do more damage."
Divisive primary fights followed by a period of kissing and making up are something of a ritual in presidential campaigns. It happened in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln brought his three challengers for the Republican nomination into his Cabinet. One hundred years later, John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination and avoided an intraparty feud by picking Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate, though in the late stages of the primaries they had been fierce rivals.
In this year's Republican race, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney became an active supporter of McCain after the two campaigned against each other with open antipathy. Romney is now thought to have an outside chance of being McCain's running mate.
But the Obama-Clinton fight has gone on so long and the ill will has become so intense that even if the candidates can heal the party, as both have vowed to do, they will have to spend critical campaign time dealing with those wounds rather than taking on McCain.
"You can't afford to leak away all of these Democrats come November," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. The Democratic nominee "will have to spend weeks solidifying the base," he said. ". . . Now you're cutting into the time you have to begin making the case to independents, because first you've got to take care of business at home."
Patricia Sparrow, 53, said there's nothing Clinton could do to win her over. She changed her registration from Republican to Democrat this year to cast her ballot for Obama after her son started talking about him. But she said a Clinton-McCain matchup in November would send her back to her old party -- even though she disagrees with McCain's position on Iraq -- because she finds Clinton so divisive.
"With Hillary Clinton, it's politics as usual -- old-school backbiting. I have no use for [her]," said Sparrow, who runs a soup kitchen near her home in Norfolk, Mass. "I would probably vote for McCain even though I don't want to. . . . I would hope he would be swayed by public opinion on the war."
There may not be enough time to win over Cowley, who calls Clinton "brilliant" and has spent two hours a day for the last three months calling voters to talk about Clinton's health-care plan, her experience and her plan to end the war in Iraq.
"In my heart I just can't bring myself to [vote for Obama], and I feel like a schlep," she said. "I'm not going to be voting for him, and it irritates me. Nobody's concerned about the women. I don't think I can vote for McCain. I guess I'll have to sit it out."
Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.