'Skinny Kid with a Funny Name' Reshapes US Politics

"They said this day would never come," said the Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama at the outset of his barnstorming victory speech on Thursday night. But as he arrived in New Hampshire early yesterday, Americans woke up to the historic possibility that the day when they might have a black president was closer than they thought - not just within their lifetime, but within the year.

Until Thursday night that was little more than a remote likelihood - a fresh-faced, freshman senator whose middle name is Hussein up against the daunting might of the Clinton machine in the sixth whitest state in America. Last month, former president Bill Clinton asked if the United States was ready to "roll the dice" on an Obama presidency.

Iowa caucus-goers rolled. Obama won, leaving Iowa with 38% of the vote, eight percentage points ahead of John Edwards and having pushed Hillary Clinton into third place with 29%. They also took a chance on the Republican outsider, Mike Huckabee, who vaulted to a commanding victory over his main challenger, Mitt Romney, in just a few weeks, leaving the Republican field in complete disarray.

But the night belonged to Obama, who told his supporters: "Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us but by us." He then flew into New Hampshire brimming with confidence. "I think [Iowa] is a harbinger of what's going to happen around the country," he told reporters on his flight.

But even as the Democratic field narrowed slightly, as senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden withdrew, both Clinton and Edwards were in hot pursuit. Clinton still emphasised her experience: "Who will be the best president based not on a leap of faith but on the kind of changes we've already produced?" she asked.

Meanwhile in Manchester, New Hampshire, Edwards painted himself as the underdog in a battle against Obama. "I am not the candidate of money, I am not the candidate of glitz, I am not the candidate of glamour. Nor do I claim to be," he told a morning rally.

Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, owed his win to white evangelical voters who backed him by more than two to one over his nearest rival. He now heads to New Hampshire, a libertarian state where religion plays less of a political role, trailing Romney and Senator John McCain in the polls.

The Republican hopeful and former New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, has decided to forego competing seriously in Iowa and New Hampshire and wait to make his mark in Florida later in January - a strategy some say is doomed to failure.

Obama's win was the result not of mobilising the Democratic base but transforming it. More than a third of his support was from the under-30s and most of those who backed him had never been to a caucus before. A large number of independents also flocked to him, helping to boost Democratic caucus goers to almost double the number four years ago.

In so doing he not only helped remould the electoral landscape of the Democratic party, he also refashioned the racial expectations of America's electoral politics. The days when black politicians stood for office in order to force the issues affecting black communities from the margins to the mainstream are over. Now they can stand to win. In the last 50 years the number of white people who said they would not vote for a black presidential candidate has nosedived from 53% to just 6%.

But that requires new strategies. Obama has played down his race and white voters have so far mostly played along, pretending either not to notice or suggesting that America has overcome such obstacles.

Obama does however use the rhetoric of the civil rights era in a manner that no other candidate would. With Oprah Winfrey by his side he quoted Martin Luther King about the "fierce urgency of now".

Some are sceptical however that his victory may represent a racial advance that is far more symbolic than substantial.

Obama's theme has been change - healing the polarised political culture that has become entrenched over the last eight years. In a country embroiled in war, facing a possible recession where 71% believe it is on the wrong track, his message of hope and change clearly resonated.

It was not entirely clear what that change would mean in practice, but it was always clear what it would look like. Him. With a Kenyan father, Kansan mother, raised in Hawaii, studied at Harvard - some believed that literally he embodied change. From the outset he had described himself as "a skinny kid with a funny name". That his name was neither Clinton nor Bush may have mattered more than the fact that it rhymed with "Osama".

These are early days. The polls have him trailing Clinton in every state apart from his own. On Tuesday he must do it all again in New Hampshire, where Clinton has stronger roots and until recently had a sizeable lead which he has been closing. In the language of American commentators Iowa will provide a bounce that could in turn give him momentum. In short, he is on a roll.

(c) 2008 The Guardian

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