Nicole LeFavour of Idaho sees Obama's race through a different kind of prism. Serious racial tension is often an abstraction in her state -- it is about 97% white. But LeFavour, the first openly gay member of the Idaho Legislature, hopes that Obama will break the chain of 43 white men in the White House and govern with the interests of a more diverse population in mind.
"I think for a lot of people who have experienced discrimination -- be it over race, gender or sexual orientation -- they want a president who knows what it's like to be different," she said.
For others, Obama's lure is not necessarily that he is black but that he "transcends" race with his biracial background and nuanced exploration of the American racial landscape. That is part of the appeal for Ralph Fertig, 78, a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement who now teaches social work at USC.
"It's not just that he's black -- Jesse Jackson was black," Fertig said. "It's that he transcends it."
Shelby Steele, a conservative black intellectual, has argued that such opinions point to a paradox inherent in the Obama phenomenon: Though the Illinois senator's campaign suggests racial "transcendence," Steele argues that race, nonetheless, is the only thing that separates Obama from hordes of party-line liberal Democrats. "If he were not black, I don't know if we'd know his name," Steele said at a lecture in January.
In an interview last week, Steele said that many white voters were choosing Obama as a way to "finally document for the world that they are not racist," an impulse that blinds them to Obama's weaknesses.
The argument didn't hold water with Betty Pearson, 86. She said she was one of the very few white Democrats in rural Tallahatchie County, Miss.
Though "extremely pleased" about the prospect of a black president, Pearson added: "I don't think that voting for a black guy absolves anybody of anything. There are still wrongs that need to be righted, and things that we need to do."
Hairston of Virginia, the descendant of slave owners, thought Obama, if elected, would quell overseas critics who accuse the United States of racism. If critics like Steele called that "white guilt," he said, then so be it.
Guilt, he said, "has a place and a role. Those who fail to feel guilt are sociopaths."