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First things first

Clinton or Obama? Democrats may want to make history, but elections are often about less lofty concerns.

December 17, 2006

CALL IT THE battle of the "firsts." Will Democrats choose Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York as the first female presidential candidate of a major party? Or will they opt for a different "first" by selecting Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as the first African American nominee of a major party? And if the Democrats, a party favored by African Americans and feminists, choose one first rather than the other, will they jeopardize their ties with a key constituency?

Before this discussion gets out of control, a few caveats should be kept in mind. The first is that if current trends continue, 2008 will not arrive for one year. The second is that Clinton and Obama are not the only would-be presidents to emerge among Democrats. Other potential candidates include Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, former presidential nominees Al Gore and John Kerry and former vice presidential nominee John Edwards. And don't forget Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, who can claim a first of his own by being the first 2004 Democratic candidate to re-announce for 2008.

All right, forget Kucinich. But the others are substantial figures who may develop strong appeal in the next two years for reasons that have nothing to do with unease about a black nominee or a female one. Likewise, Obama and Clinton may encounter resistance from voters and donors alike for reasons unrelated to race or gender.

As a former first lady who has developed her own political constituency as a senator, Clinton must overcome not only her identification with Bill Clinton (and questions about what role he would play in her administration) but also qualms among liberals about her move to the center on several fronts, including the war in Iraq.

The freshness that makes Obama so exciting is the flip side of his relative inexperience in public life. That inexperience could become a liability.

Identity politics undeniably are a factor in the appeal of both Clinton and Obama. Although women have been chosen to head governments in Britain, Canada, India, Israel and Germany, the election of the first female American president would be a milestone.

Likewise, given the U.S. history of racial discrimination, it isn't surprising that Obama's heritage makes him especially intriguing to black and white voters. Obama's race is no less, and no more, an "advantage" than John F. Kennedy's Catholicism or George W. Bush's family tree. Voters take all sorts of factors into consideration when they enter the polling booth, including, sometimes, a desire to contribute to a historic "first."

But Democrats who want to make history with their vote in next year's primaries should recognize that some of their fellow citizens will be guided by more prosaic concerns -- such as who is the best person for the job or who is more likely to prevail in a general election. Who knows? Clinton or Obama might end up on top of those lists too.

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