In the case of Barack Obama, his multiracial background counts as such an obvious, powerful advantage that it easily makes up for his lack of leadership experience (only two undistinguished years in the Senate) and an ultraliberal voting record that would otherwise alienate most moderates and all conservatives.
Though he proudly identifies himself as African-American (as a reflection of his Kenyan father), he refers frequently to his white, Kansas-born mother and also acknowledges the Asian influence in his upbringing.
He was born and raised in Hawaii (with its heavy Asian-American majority) and spent part of his childhood living in Indonesia with the Indonesian stepfather his mother married shortly after his parents divorced.
With his strong roots among blacks, whites and Asians -- along with his Islamic middle name, Hussein -- he comes across like a political version of Tiger Woods, not just biracial, or even multiracial, but transracial.
And like Tiger Woods, Obama carries none of the ghetto associations that many whites resent and fear in some prominent blacks.
He projects the aura of Harvard, not the 'hood, and offers a distinctive combination of personal warmth and stylistic cool.
There's nothing even vaguely menacing about the junior senator from Illinois and in contrast to many other black leaders, who seem to convey a sense of grudge and simmering anger, Obama may be the least angry major politician since Ronald Reagan.
Next to his unflappable geniality, Hillary Clinton comes across as a strident grouch.
Obama seems so distant from racial stereotypes, in fact, that some observers wonder whether he might alienate the African-American community as somehow inauthentic, as "too white," to connect with inner-city voters.
In this regard, it certainly helps that his photogenic wife and children are unequivocally black.
Moreover, in the drive to win African-American support, the senator boasts a far more important qualification than his mixed-race origins: He's a liberal Democrat.
In the 2006 gubernatorial elections in Pennsylvania and Ohio, African-American voters overwhelmingly chose white Democrats over black Republicans.
However "white" Barack Obama may seem, he's not as white as Al Gore or John Kerry and both of those pampered Ivy Leaguers won close to 90 percent of the national black vote.
Does Obama really need to do better than that among African-Americans in order to win the presidency?
For the senator from Illinois, it's a long, treacherous journey from the currently rhapsodic media hype to taking the oath of office in 2009.
Obama must deal with his acknowledged lack of experience, the intimidating money and establishment support already committed to Hillary Clinton, and his untested character when it comes to dealing with the crisis-a-day challenges of a national campaign.
There are, in other words, formidable obstacles for Obama to overcome, but his racial identity doesn't count as one of them.