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Obama: tougher than Hillary for the Republicans?

The conventional wisdom is taking hold that Obama and Huckabee are likely to win the Iowa caucus on January 3.

While Hillary could bounce back with a win in New Hampshire, a couple of observers think that Obama would be a tougher challenge for the Republicans. Conservative Andrew Sullivan recently made the case in the Atlantic that Obama is the candidate best poised to move the US beyond the hyper-partisanship that has grown through the Clinton-Bush years:

The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics. It has little to do with Obama’s considerable skills as a conciliator, legislator, or even thinker. It has even less to do with his ideological pedigree or legal background or rhetorical skills. Yes, as the many profiles prove, he has considerable intelligence and not a little guile. But so do others, not least his formidably polished and practiced opponent Senator Hillary Clinton. . . . .

In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

Yesterday, Frank Rich took up the case that Obama is the man:

But much like the Clinton campaign itself, the Republicans have fallen into a trap by continuing to cling to the Hillary-is-inevitable trope. They have not allowed themselves to think the unthinkable — that they might need a Plan B to go up against a candidate who is not she. It’s far from clear that they would remotely know how to construct a Plan B to counter Mr. Obama. The repeated attempts to fan “rumors” that he is a madrassa-indoctrinated Muslim — whether on Fox News or in The Washington Post, where they resurfaced scurrilously on the front page on Thursday — are too demonstrably false to survive endless reruns even in the Swift-boating era.

Part of the Republicans’ difficulty in countering Mr. Obama, should they have to, is their own cynical racial politics. For the most part, race has been the dog that hasn’t barked in this campaign despite the (largely) white press’s endless fretting about whether the Illinois senator is too white for black voters and too black for white voters. Most Americans aren’t racist, most Republicans included. (Those who are won’t vote for the Democratic presidential candidate even if it’s not Mr. Obama.) But the G.O.P., by its own doing, is nonetheless saddled with a history that most recently includes “macaca” and Katrina, Mr. Bush’s appearance at Bob Jones University in 2000 and the nonexistent black population of its Congressional delegation.

As the Republican leadership knows, this record is an albatross, driving away not just black voters but crucial white swing voters, too. Ken Mehlman, the former G.O.P. chairman, and Mr. Rove, as recently as in that Newsweek column, have implored their party to reach out to minorities. So have Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp. But not even conservative leaders of this stature could persuade their party’s top 2008 presidential contenders to show up for a September debate moderated by Tavis Smiley for PBS at the historically black Morgan State University.

It’s not because those no-shows are racists; it’s because they are defensive and out of touch. With the notable exception of Mike Huckabee, most of the party’s candidates have barricaded themselves from African-Americans for so long that they don’t know how to speak to or about them. As sure-footed as these Republicans are in attacking the Clintons and Streisand — or in exchanging fire with Al Sharpton and hip-hop moguls — they are strangers to the mainstream multiracial and multicultural America exemplified by an Obama or an Oprah.

An Obama candidacy would force them to engage. Or try to. A matchup between Mr. Obama and Mr. Giuliani, who was forged in the racial crucible of New York’s police brutality nightmares of the 1990s, or between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney, who was shaped by a religion that didn’t give blacks equal membership until 1978, would be less a clash of races than of centuries.

But there’s another, even more fascinating hidden story line in the 2008 campaign that speaks to the potential prowess of an Obama candidacy. Despite the thuggish name-calling of a few right-wing die-hards (e.g., Rush Limbaugh mocking “Barack Hussein Odumbo”), the dirty secret of a number of conservatives is that they are disarmed by Mr. Obama even though they know his record is more liberal than Mrs. Clinton’s.

The drumbeat of approval has been remarkably steady. Last year Mark McKinnon, a top adviser to both the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, admiringly called Mr. Obama “a walking, talking hope machine” who “may reshape American politics.” Andrew Ferguson devoted pages in The Weekly Standard to raving about “Dreams From My Father,” Mr. Obama’s memoir, before dismissing its political sequel, “The Audacity of Hope.” Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, keeps trying to write anti-Obama articles but they’re so mild that they never really contradict his judgment of a year ago that the senator from Illinois “is the only presidential candidate from either party about whom there is a palpable excitement.” Even Tom Tancredo, the most virulent immigration demagogue of the G.O.P. presidential field, has spoken warmly of Mr. Obama.

Perhaps most striking is the case of Shelby Steele, the archconservative scholar who shares Mr. Obama’s mixed-race heritage. Though he has just written an entire book, “A Bound Man,” to argue (unpersuasively, in my view) that Mr. Obama “can’t win,” he can’t stop himself from admiring the guy throughout. Peggy Noonan wasn’t being tongue-in-cheek when she wondered in The Wall Street Journal last month whether Mr. Obama “understands the kind of quiet cheering he is beginning to garner from some Republicans.” In her view “they see him as a Democrat who could cure the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton sickness.”

Or at least they do in the abstract. Should Mr. Obama upend the Beltway story line by taking Iowa, the Republicans will have every reason to be as fearful as the Clinton camp is now.

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