Rise of Obama Jolts Democrats - and GOP

Published on
by
The Baltimore Sun

Rise of Obama Jolts Democrats - and GOP

For the better part of a year, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was expected to be the Democrats' 2008 presidential nominee. Polls showed her leading nationally and in key primary states. Bettors favored her in online political futures markets. The candidate herself was happy to perpetuate the notion that her nomination was inevitable. So pervasive was this inevitability meme that former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani began depicting himself as the GOP entrant best able to beat Mrs. Clinton in November.

Whether or not Mrs. Clinton can come back to win the nomination, fellow Sen. Barack Obama's victory in Iowa and strong showing last night in New Hampshire dented any notion of her inevitability. Iowa made him the front-runner, a development that has shaken up not only the Democratic primary but the Republican one as well. His continued success would also make an independent run by New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg much less likely.

"Because Barack speaks to the broadest possible constituency, he's the most difficult candidate for the Republicans to deal with," former Sen. Bill Bradley, an Obama endorser, told me after he gave an impromptu rally speech to Obama volunteers here Monday. "He's not just trying to get the base of the party out; he's trying to expand the base."

Poll numbers from New Hampshire confirm Mr. Bradley's assessment. According to a recent pre-primary CNN/WMUR poll, almost four times as many Republicans in the Granite State hold a favorable view of Mr. Obama than of Mrs. Clinton (54 percent to 15 percent). These are ominous numbers for Republicans still hoping to draw the former first lady in the general election.

The first whiff of the cross-partisan threat of Mr. Obama's January surge came during the late stages of Saturday night's Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College. Moderator Scott Spradling of WMUR asked the candidates how, if nominated, they would run in the general election against Mr. Obama.

After Sen. John McCain touted his experience in foreign policy and called Mr. Obama too inexperienced to take command of the country, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reminded Mr. McCain that all the Democrats "made that same argument in Iowa," yet Mr. Obama "blew them away. And if you think making that argument as a Republican, that you have more experience and you've been around longer in the Senate ... that's not going to work."

There's also a palpable generational undercurrent to Mr. Obama's surge. To a home-state newspaper, Mr. Romney slyly juxtaposed the 71-year-old Mr. McCain's age with that of Mr. Obama, 46. "There's no way our party would be successful in the fall if we put forward a long-serving senator to stand up against Barack Obama's message of change," Mr. Romney said. Translation: "Long-serving" means too old, and old won't cut it against a dynamic whippersnapper.

Then there's the likability issue. In Iowa, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee parlayed a self-effacing manner and evangelical support to win the Republican caucuses. During the St. Anselm debate exchange, Mr. Huckabee tried to draw an implicit parallel between himself and Mr. Obama by offering a compliment and a warning. "He is a likable person who has excited people about wanting to vote who have not voted in the past," Mr. Huckabee said. "And we'd better be careful as a party, because if we don't give people something to be for, and only something to be against, we're going to lose that next election."

In his stock stump speech, Mr. Obama talks about not only winning the nomination but also building a "governing majority" after November. This is not a candidate aiming to eke out a 51 percent, predominantly blue-state electoral victory. At this point, electoral hopes like this still seem, well, audacious. In the past eight presidential elections, only Ronald Reagan in 1984 got more than 53 percent of the national popular vote.

But if you had been here or in Iowa, you would have experienced a political tremor not often felt in presidential politics. It is the rumbling of renewal and realignment, and Mr. Obama is using it to shake the political terrain for both parties, as Republicans are realizing.

But maybe not all of them. Outside a Huckabee event here in the capital city, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who has presented himself as an African-American candidate with crossover appeal, said Republicans should not be nervous about facing Mr. Obama next fall.

So running against him is no different from running against Mrs. Clinton? Replied Mr. Steele: "In my book? No."

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His column appears Wednesdays in The Baltimore Sun.

Share This Article

More in: