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Archive for Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Obama candidacy might suit GOP

October 31, 2006

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Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is the flavor of the month among Democrats who are seeking an alternative to Sen. Hillary Clinton for president in 2008.

As much as the Republicans would like to see Sen. Clinton as the Democratic nominee, believing she is quite beatable, they probably wouldn't be upset to see Obama as their opponent either.

Actually, they might even like running against him better.

The articulate and attractive Obama has captured the imagination of some in the Democratic Party and many in the news media. Time magazine put him on its cover with the headline "Why Barack Obama could be THE NEXT PRESIDENT" (their emphasis).

Many see him as charismatic, and his admirers view him as the embodiment of their American Dream. He is the son of a white mother and black father and has been able to bridge the racial divide, an admirable quality.

Truth be told, they see him as less polarizing than Sen. Clinton, whom most Democrats admire. But many hope she won't run in 2008 because they don't think she can win.

Hence the search for an alternative. Many were especially disappointed when former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner concluded he could not defeat Sen. Clinton for the nomination and decided to spend more time with his family.

The other potential Democratic nominees include old standbys like 2004 nominee John Kerry, perhaps 2000 nominee Al Gore. There are also several Washington hands that are not as well known, yet would never fit the definition of a fresh face.

Obama is certainly that. He has been a U.S. senator for only two years and was in the Illinois Senate seven years before that. He has a liberal voting record, but those swooning over him think he talks like a moderate.

Now, many of these people said similar things about Kerry in 2004. But that's because they live in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, not Jacksonville, Cincinnati or Kansas City, where the definitions apparently differ.

Among those who know who Obama is - a minority, and disproportionately those who would fit the definition of political junkie - he is quite popular. But he is a blank slate to most Americans.

In the Quinnipiac Poll quarterly survey of how warmly Americans feel toward their politicians, Obama gets the best grades among the 13 Democrats tested. Yet, his numbers have been going down among non-Democrats as he becomes better known.

Whether the country would elect a black president is an open question. Should he run, much will be made of his race. But it is not clear that the general electorate will see his being a political pioneer in the same light as much as those who vote in Democratic primaries.

Putting race aside, Obama is at best a more charismatic version of the kind of losing Democratic candidates we have seen in recent decades. The only Democrats elected president since 1960 have been Southerners, and the most recent ones, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, were able to convince voters they were ideological moderates.

The closest Obama can come to having Southern roots is representing the South Side of Chicago in the Illinois Senate. Some may think he talks like a moderate without the partisanship that has made Congress a vicious place these days, but his voting record makes it more difficult to make that case in the Sun Belt, where a Democratic must break through in order to win the White House.

The well-respected National Journal compares members of Congress to their colleagues on a variety of issues on a liberal/conservative scale. Obama ranks high on the liberal scale, slightly more liberal on defense, economic and foreign policy than Sen. Clinton, and slightly less so on social issues.

Perhaps his inspiring appeal and personal charm will make him a better presidential candidate than many who have shared his general philosophy in the past. Maybe the country has changed its views and values.

Maybe the fact that Obama has spent little time in Washington, none in the military nor had any other kind of relevant foreign policy credentials won't matter in the face of his personal charm.

Maybe, but one gets the feeling the Republicans would be more than happy to take the chance.

- Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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