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Obama: Uniter or Just a Liberal?

By Peter Brown

The reasons my friend Kate Hanna, one of New Hampshire's premier Democratic activists, is backing Barack Obama are worth examining for their underlying assumptions. Most expected she would be with Hillary Clinton.

Kate, elected to the state legislature while in college and a player in the first-in-the-nation primary in the 30 years since, made two judgments:

Sen. Hillary Clinton, of whom Kate is immensely fond, can't win the November election because too many independent voters and soft Republicans dislike her; Sen. Obama's fresh face and calls for national unity can attract enough of those voters to win the White House.

Her views are not uncommon among Democrats, and she has the added insight from her service as Gov. John Lynch's policy director and legal counsel, which gave her a chance to scrutinize the presidential candidates up close and personal.

They explain why a relatively inexperienced senator is giving Sen. Clinton, who most assumed would easily win the Democratic nomination, a run for her money.

Kate's views are not without reason.

Sen. Clinton is a polarizing figure unlikely to change many minds on the campaign trail. Yet, the numbers indicate she could win a narrow victory in a polarized election - much as did President Bush in 2004.

In a Quinnipiac University national poll earlier this month, 46 percent of voters viewed her unfavorably, while 44 percent viewed her favorably. Two months ago, the Quinnipiac Poll gave her a 45-44 favorable/unfavorable ratio.

That means roughly 45 percent of Americans have a solidly negative view. That doesn't mean she can't be elected, although her best case would likely be a nail biter in which she prevailed.

But her numbers make that possible. Among self-described Democrats, 80 percent see her positively, 10 percent negatively. (These days there are more self-identified Democrats than Republicans.) Among independents, she is 45-43 percent positive.

Her weakness is in states John Kerry lost by five points or more in 2004. Those are unlikely to be in play in 2008. In states Kerry won by five points or more she is 57-38 favorable. In the swing states, she is 44 favorable, 45 unfavorable.

Those numbers mean that even with overall negative ratings in the mid 40s, Sen. Clinton might win the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.

Kate's view is that Obama, to whom she is attracted to on the issues, is more elect-able because he lacks Sen. Clinton's baggage, and is offering a message around which all Americans can unite.

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Clearly, Obama has that opportunity. In those same Quinnipiac polls in which Sen. Clinton leads him substantially among Democrats, his more than 2.5-1 favorable/unfavorable ratio among the overall electorate is much better than hers.

That's because independents view him favorably by a 50-12 margin. Yet, more than a third of voters do not know enough about him to have an opinion.

The question is how that third of the electorate and many who have a hazy view of Obama will feel as his views and values become better known.

Kate believes Obama can unite the country because some of those who do not agree with him on specific issues, or think he lacks the necessary experience, especially on national security matters, will back him anyway.

There is precedent for this. Ronald Reagan won support from millions who disagreed with many of his policies but admired and trusted him.

But an analysis by the well-respected and impartial National Journal found Obama's voting record in his first two years in the Senate was the most liberal of any Democratic presidential candidate.

Those views may not go down well with Republicans and many independents who voted for Reagan and both presidents named Bush.

The only Democrat to win the White House in a generation, Bill Clinton, captured many of those same voters. But he did so with a more centrist message than Obama has yet to offer, or that his voting record implies.

Whether Kate turns out to be correct will depend on those independents and soft Republicans. Will they see Obama as someone whose persona transcends policies, or just a charming fellow with whom they disagree?

Peter A. Brown is assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He can be reached at peter.brown@quinnipiac.edu

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