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The warrior and the priest

The battle line between Clinton and Obama is an old one in Democratic Party politics.

March 25, 2007|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is The Times' national affairs columnist.

IN THE EARLY returns among the young, computer-savvy social networkers on the MySpace website, Barack Obama is running laps around Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama's MySpace page has attracted more than twice as many friends as Clinton's unofficial page on the site.

But when the two leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination appeared earlier this month in Washington before a beefy, brush-cut audience at an International Assn. of Fire Fighters convention, the result was reversed. Obama received a tepid response while Clinton blew away the room when she followed him to the stage.

"If I was Barack Obama, I'd say that speech -- that's the one I wanted to deliver to the firefighters," said Bob Markwood, an Orlando firefighter, a few minutes after Clinton concluded.

These contrasting responses signal the resurgence of a dynamic that has repeatedly shaped, and frequently decided, the contests for the Democratic presidential nomination over the last generation.

Obama's early support is following a pattern familiar from the campaigns of other brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform, from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Gary Hart in 1984 to Bill Bradley in 2000. Like those predecessors, Obama is running strong with well-educated voters but demonstrating much less support among those without college degrees.

That trend may be exaggerated at the moment by the fact that Obama, a relative newcomer, is better known among better-educated voters, and it could be mitigated in the future by his potential appeal to African Americans. But it is not a pattern Obama can allow to harden. All of the candidates whose support fit that profile ultimately lost the nomination to rivals whose support was rooted in the blue-collar and minority communities where Clinton is strongest in early surveys.

"Obama has got to expand his base in order to be consistently competitive," said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic strategist not affiliated with any of the 2008 candidates.

Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.

It's not much of an oversimplification to say that the blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values. Each group finds candidates who reflect those priorities.

Democratic professionals often describe this sorting as a competition between upscale "wine track" candidates and blue-collar "beer track" contenders. Another way to express the difference is to borrow from historian John Milton Cooper Jr.'s telling comparison of the pugnacious Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic Woodrow Wilson. Cooper described the long rivalry between Republican Roosevelt and Democrat Wilson as a contest between a warrior and a priest. In modern times, the Democratic presidential race has usually pitted a warrior against a priest.

Warrior candidates stress their ability to deliver on kitchen table concerns and revel in political combat. They tout their experience and flout their scars. Their greatest strength is usually persistence, not eloquence; they don't so much inspire as reassure. Think of Harry Truman in 1948, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and, in a somewhat more diluted fashion, Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.

The priests, whose lineage runs back through McCarthy to Adlai Stevenson, present a very different face. They write books and sometimes verse. They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by inchoate longing for a "new politics" as tangible demands for new policies. In the past quarter of a century, Hart, Bradley and the late neo-liberal Paul Tsongas in 1992 each embodied the priest in Democratic presidential politics.

Some candidates transcend these divisions. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was a warrior who quoted Aeschylus. Bill Clinton blended a warrior's resiliency with a priest's promise of transformative ("third way") politics. But most Democratic candidates fall clearly on one or the other side of this divide.

Hillary Clinton has firmly positioned herself as a warrior. She wowed the firefighters' convention not through eloquence but passionate declarations of shared commitments. "You were there when we needed you, and I want you to know I will be there when you need me," she insisted. Her campaign already views non-college voters, especially women, as the foundation of her coalition. Her stump speech, centered on a promise to represent "invisible" Americans, targets the economic anxieties of blue-collar families.

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