Presidential 'Race' Begins to Matter

Donald Lambro

3/24/2008 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The 2008 presidential election is about seven months away, the Democrats' nomination process faces a deadlock that threatens to split the party, and both its candidates are trailing John McCain.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. With the Republicans presiding over an unpopular war, the economy in turmoil, the housing and credit markets in a slump, skyrocketing gas prices and the legislative agenda in gridlock, the conventional wisdom holds that the GOP stands little chance of retaining the White House in such a bleak political environment.

But in an unexpected turn of events, the Democratic candidates are on the defensive, and McCain is leading them in the latest Reuters news poll by six to eight points. Freshman Sen. Barack Obama has been reluctantly forced to explain a 20-year relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of his church whose hateful racial condemnation of white America threatens to seriously damage his presidential bid. Indeed, his downturn in the polls suggests this damage has already been done.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has been forced to release over 11,000 pages of her White House schedules, which suggest her claim to have played a major policy role in the Clinton years was wildly exaggerated. The schedules show the first lady, especially after the collapse of her failed health care plan, in largely ceremonial activities that had little if anything to do with presidential-level responsibilities.

Worse, the documents serve to remind voters of those scandal-ridden years, the nonstop investigations, sworn depositions and even the fact that she was in the White House during Bill Clinton's sexual shenanigans with intern Monica Lewinsky. Not the kind of memories a presidential candidate wants dredged up in the midst of a problematic, floundering campaign.

Meanwhile, the bickering between the two Democratic candidates over Florida and Michigan, which have been stripped of their convention delegates by Democratic officials for violating party rules, continued -- feeding an image of a party that couldn't organize a two-car funeral, let alone run the country.

On the other side of the Atlantic, McCain was on a fact-finding foreign policy trip to meet with overseas leaders, assessing the situation in Iraq and burnishing his defense and foreign policy credentials to be commander-in-chief.

The contrast couldn't have been sharper: Democrats doing what they are known for -- fighting with one another, while McCain takes care of business.

The Rev. Wright story seems to have receded since Obama's high-risk speech in Philadelphia last week, but it is unlikely to fully disappear for long. Strategists in both parties say that the man Barack Obama has called a mentor harbors a long history of racist remarks that will be rediscovered as the Democratic presidential campaign continues.

Obama's speech on the whole won raves for its eloquence and for his attempt to thread the needle between holding on to the core of his black base and his legions of white supporters. But some Democrats cautioned that the jury was still out on how the speech plays to a larger electorate.

"It was a risky speech," Democratic strategist Donna Brazile told me. But the legendary minority outreach adviser, who managed Al Gore's 2000 campaign, says the speech may not have put the matter to rest. "What Obama did was to give one of the broadest explanations of the politics of racism in America. Some people may walk away, unsure of Obama's message. But some will see it as an olive branch, a sincere attempt to get beyond race in America," she said. "I don't know if this puts the controversy to bed. Is it a sticking point in the elections? We don't know yet. We'll see what the voters say in the Pennsylvania primary next month."

Until last week, Obama had avoided framing his candidacy in racial terms, believing he could transcend race in a campaign for reconciliation, unity and change that cut across all demographic and political lines. To a significant degree, he had succeeded in doing that -- though it was blurred by the overwhelmingly black vote he won in primaries across the South and the Northern urban centers.

In fact, a large share of his vote total comes from states with few if any blacks, including Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Wisconsin, Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming, Maine and Utah, among others. In Wisconsin and Vermont, for example, he drew 54 percent and 60 percent respectively of the white vote.

But last week, race intruded itself into a Democratic nomination contest beset with more problems than it was ever expected to have at this point in the 2008 presidential sweepstakes.