Although Barack Obama apparently won more Nevada delegates Saturday because of that state's proportional representational rules, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. This result may have been foreshadowed at last week's Las Vegas debate - not by anything the candidates said, but in a remark by a member of the FOX News Channel focus group moderated by Frank Luntz. One participant said that the endorsement of Obama by two key unions did not mean he would get all their members' votes. "Obviously," the man told Luntz, Hispanics would not be voting for Obama. The man was himself Hispanic. When Luntz asked what was obvious about this, the man refused to say. But having reported for two years in San Antonio and five years in Miami, I can tell you that racial tensions between African-Americans and Hispanics often run very high. And indeed, Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in Nevada.
The Clinton campaign, which also did well among lower-income whites - especially women - has been accused of playing the race card. For instance, New Hampshire co-chairman Billy Shaheen suggested that Obama - having admitted past use of cocaine - might be asked "by Republicans" about dealing drugs. (Shaheen later resigned from the Clinton campaign but his remarks were widely reported.) Then former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey - another prominent Clinton supporter -- repeatedly referred to Obama's middle name (Hussein) and his Muslim roots. (Kerrey later apologized and said he meant to compliment Obama.) Former UN Ambassador and Atlanta mayor Andrew Young - a key Clinton supporter -- said that Bill Clinton was "every bit as black" as Obama and that Clinton had "gone with" more black women. BET founder Robert Johnson likened Obama to the inter-marrying Sidney Poitier character in the movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and was also generally understood to be bringing up Obama's drug use again. (Johnson denied it but apologized.) And Senator Clinton said that Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior's dream of a color blind society required the political clout of President Lyndon Johnson to be realized.
Clinton and Obama have called a truce on race issues. But even if that truce holds, the damage may already have been done. Obama says his campaign has been trying to transcend race. He has cited Dr. King's dream and distanced himself from some African American leaders who are accused by critics of playing identity politics. Obama has even spoken admiringly of Ronald Reagan, not for the content of his ideas (as both Clintons charge) but for having used ideas to change the direction of American politics, something Obama said Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton failed to do.
It can be argued that Obama's very presence in the race makes race an issue, since detractors say were he not black he never would have gotten this far. (Others say that - far from being a feminist like Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir -- Hillary Clinton has her Senate seat and shot at the nomination only because she's married to a former President.)
The irony is that if Obama wins South Carolina, where 50% of the voters are expected to be African American, he may seem further marginalized as a black candidate, much as Mike Huckabee is dismissed by many as an Evangelical.
Which brings us to the Republicans, who have already voted in South Carolina. Nearly 60% identified themselves as Evangelicals and Huckabee won the lion's share (40%). But once again, he polled poorly among non-Evangelicals (12%). John McCain won 27% of the Evangelical vote and also did well among Bush critics, those who described themselves as moderate or slightly conservative voters, and also older Republicans. The self-proclaimed "consistent conservative" in the race - Fred Thompson - won less than half of McCain and Huckabee's vote totals and is expected to drop out. Mitt Romney concentrated his efforts in Nevada, where he was opposed only by Ron Paul.
Where does this leave the GOP? On the road to Florida without a clear front-runner - but with more ideological consistency than critics concede.
Despite what you hear in much of the mainstream media, Republican candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul and possibly Huckabee) have always supported victory in the Iraq war, and McCain's early call for a troop surge only burnished his national security credentials among conservatives. McCain is anathema to Reagan conservatives for, among other things, voting against the Bush tax cuts (but he now says he would extend them), for pushing the comprehensive immigration bill (but he now says he would close the borders first) and for supporting filibusters of Bush judicial appointees (but he says he would appoint justices like Scalia and Alito).
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani have also been apostate on some conservative issues, yet when it comes to national security, taxes, domestic spending, and immigration the leading candidates all now sound remarkably consistent (just as the leading Democrats don't differ much in their diametrically opposed view of those issues).
The challenge for Republicans is not so much policy as trust. That challenge has been made tougher by what much of the base sees as betrayal (not on the war or judges but on many other issues) by President Bush and Republicans in Congress. Whichever Republican wins the nomination will have to reclaim that trust to ensure the massive turnout of the base that was the basis of Karl Rove's winning strategy.