Obama takes the game to a whole new level

He appears to be able to reach across the partisan divide to all voters

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The Gazette, Monday, January 7, 2008

In the front-end-loaded U.S. presidential race, there are only four days between last Thursday's Iowa caucuses and tomorrow's New Hampshire primary.

That's very little time for Hillary Clinton to erect a flood wall against the surging Barack Obama, who beat her by nine points in Iowa, where she actually finished third behind John Edwards.

From the beginning, her candidacy has been built on name recognition and inevitability, as well as money and her standing as the candidate of the Democrat establishment.

But there are two kinds of name recognition, the all too familiar personified by Clinton, and the new and different embodied by Obama.

And after Iowa, she isn't inevitable anymore.

Clinton desperately needs to stem the rising Obama tide in New Hampshire. Already, the field has been winnowed down to three viable candidates, and it isn't clear how competitive Edwards will be in New Hampshire, a state with a very strong record of picking the eventual winner of the nomination. It's really just Clinton and Obama.

The strength of Clinton's candidacy is a fully financed national campaign that is supposed to peak on Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when more than 20 states, including New York and California, will vote in primaries. Her problem is getting there in one piece.

Her real problem is that she is trying to sell herself as the candidate of experience, in a season of change.

In entrance polls in Iowa, 51 per cent of voters said change was the most important factor in choosing a candidate, while only 20 per cent chose experience. And among voters under 30 years of age, 57 per cent broke to Obama, as against only 11 per cent for Clinton.

Obama also did well among independent voters, and in New Hampshire, 40 per cent of voters are independents, who can vote in the Democratic primary, while Republicans are also free to cross over. One of the most striking elements of Obama's message is his reaching across the partisan divide of American politics with his line that "there are no red states, no blue states, only the United States of America."

Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the most unrepresentative states in America - both are 95 per cent white, and predominantly rural and small town. Obama is the first major African American candidate for president. Jesse Jackson was a candidate of grievance. Obama is a messenger of hope.

He has a compelling story line, draws big crowds, and he has the oratorical skills to bring them to their feet.

Voters in New Hampshire, and across the United States, looking in on Obama's triumph in Iowa, saw one of the most eloquent victory speeches ever delivered, one that left even the most hardened television commentators quite breathless. The voice and cadence were uniquely Obama's own, but there were echoes of both Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy.

There is no doubt that Obama's showing, and his speech, in Iowa will have given him a momentum surge going into New Hampshire on the weekend.

This was in remarkable contrast to Clinton's remarks, a few minutes earlier, as she awkwardly tried to move forward to New Hampshire as the candidate of both experience and change.

She can't win the change argument, she's already lost it.

And even on experience, she comes with a ton of baggage - her husband's as well as her own.

On Iraq, she voted in favour of the war, which Obama has opposed from the beginning. On health care, Americans remember she was in charge of the file, and botched it completely, under her husband's administration. Free trade? She would reopen the NAFTA, one of the principal legacies and bold vision statements of Bill Clinton's presidency. Obama says globalization is here to stay and quotes Bill Clinton in telling U.S. voters they must "have the courage to change."

It isn't that Hillary Clinton isn't a formidable candidate, with a well-organized and financed campaign. But it might be that it's not her time.

Change and hope are the two most powerful forces in any election. When the agent of change and the messenger of hope is an articulate and attractive leader like Obama, he enjoys a huge comparative advantage over all his opponents.

Obama is like Tiger Woods. He takes the game to a new level, his own.

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