Both Barack Obama and John McCain swept the primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. But while Obama's path forward is now clear, McCain still has to find a way to reconcile competing forces.
Obama is the candidate of change, on several levels. First, and most obviously, he would be our first black president. While Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell appears to be the latest Clinton supporter playing the race card by noting that many whites will not vote for an African American, the dirty little secret is that far more Americans, white and black, Republican and Democrat, would love to see a black president. That same desire to feel good about racial progress helped fuel the boomlets for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. They are African Americans who do not make race the focus of their being, unlike Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Not coincidentally, Powell and Rice are Republicans.
Now, for the first time, the Democrats have a candidate who just happens to be black. Obama is not asking to be elected because he is black, and he is not advancing a specifically black agenda. He is a candidate promising unity, a willingness to reach across the partisan aisle and to bridge the racial divide. His first campaign commercial in Ohio shows him as a baby with his white mother. Clearly the aim is to reach out to women voters who still elude him, although Obama did narrow that gap in the Potomac primaries. And he is pushing his health care plan, noting that his mother succumbed at a young age to cancer. But Obama is also showing that his background is bi-racial. Taken together with the fact that his father was from Africa, that he spent time as a youngster in Indonesia and that he was exposed to Islam, Obama is presenting himself as a candidate who transcends categories and confounds bigots.
Whether Obama can continue through November to remain a vaguely inspirational figure on whom voters can project their own aspirations remains to be seen. It's one thing to talk unity, quite another to split the difference on, say, quick withdrawal from Iraq, when many people feel we are now achieving the vital goal of establishing democracy there, and that maintaining a U.S. military presence of the kind we have in Kuwait and South Korea would be a good thing.
Hillary Clinton now must win both Texas and Ohio on March 4th. And given the Democrats' proportional distribution of delegates, she has to win big, since Obama is now ahead in the delegate count. She has problems. In a year when Democrats are clamoring for change, Obama has been able to portray Clinton as a divisive vestige of the past. That's why her strongest support comes from voters who fear change: older folks, union members, lower-income white women and Hispanics (who believe change agents, including blacks, want to restrict immigration).
Obama's other potentially lethal argument is that nearly half the voters will never vote for Hillary Clinton. Pollsters say no other major candidate in modern times has begun with such high negatives. Beyond that, nominating Hillary Clinton may be the only way to unite and energize... Republicans.
Which brings us to John McCain. He will win the nomination absent a George Allen macaca moment, but how will he run against the Democrats?
As I've said in earlier columns, the Karl Rove strategy that won two elections for George W. Bush called for turning out the conservative base (including our crucial Tri-state counties) in record numbers. To do this McCain would have to make peace with conservative talk radio and evangelicals, if that's even possible given his record on tax cuts, political speech, illegal immigration and a host of other wedge issues. The alternative is to run toward the center. That did not work for the nominee who most resembled McCain in terms of age, military heroics, bi-partisan congressional leadership and affection among the mainstream media: Bob Dole.
Mike Huckabee will stay in the race. Why not? He can run without much money. In Virginia he won about 70% of the evangelical vote and he expects to do equally well here in Southwest Ohio. He claims to be giving voters a choice and to be pressuring McCain to move toward the right. And Huckabee is cementing a future as a conservative leader, if not as president in 2008 or even vice-president. I don't see McCain adding him to the ticket. Huckabee has issues, such as his recent call for deporting illegal immigrants, that would be unacceptable to McCain, not to mention Hispanics and independents.
Both Obama and McCain will be vying for those independents. Obama's way is clear. McCain still faces a choice.