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Battles Make Obama Better

By Clarence Page

Is it over yet?

Everybody seems to be complaining about the endless Democratic presidential primaries. Sen. Barack Obama's supporters wonder out loud whether Sen. Hillary Clinton will deliver a concession speech before Inauguration Day.

Yet, as exhausting as the process has been, even for us die-hard political junkies, the Democrats' long march has value. It has made better campaigners of both candidates -- and taught the rest of us a lot about them both.

It has exposed their vulnerabilities and refined their strengths in preparation for the big general election battle in the fall.

Imagine, for example, if Obama had received the comparatively easy ride to the nomination that Sen. John Kerry received after winning the Iowa caucuses in 2004. The Illinois senator would not have had the chance to show himself or the rest of us how well he could handle unexpected crises and setbacks.

Same for Clinton. I have heard even some die-hard conservative Hillary haters express begrudging admiration for her determination, resourcefulness and fierce advocacy for her beliefs.

Who, for example, would have guessed that she would win the endorsement in the Pennsylvania primary of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, owned by conservative Republican Richard Mellon Scaife, a financier of what she used to call the "vast right- wing conspiracy"? Politics is full of surprises.

And Obama learned how quickly his rock-star popularity could turn against him. His rapid rise to the national stage before most of the public outside of Illinois grew to know him very well worked in his favor before suddenly it didn't.

The primaries have shown how his strong appeal with younger, higher-income and more educated voters concealed real weaknesses among older and lower-income voters who lacked college degrees. Exit polls show Clinton winning an overwhelming average of 57 percent of white Democrats since the February Super Tuesday elections.

Clinton cleverly and aggressively painted Obama as an "elitist." Despite having come from a more fortunate upbringing than he did, she turned into a passionately populist activist for ordinary "hard-working" folks -- complete with a rural accent that the suburban Chicago native apparently picked up during her Arkansas years.

Obama responded appropriately, ridiculing Clinton at one point for trying to come off like "Annie Oakley in a duck blind" to please the gun-totin' voters. Yet he also seemed to rub shoulders more often and more comfortably with a wider array of voters and towns. He moved out of the big-arena speeches and into more small conversations in local neighborhood coffee shops and basketball courts -- although he would be wise to brush up on his game before trying any more bowling alleys.

Since his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was as certain as John Kerry's swift boat veterans to become an issue in the fall, it was better for Obama to deal with the pastor's inflammatory video sound bites now rather than later. The more Obama casts himself as an opposing voice to Wright's excesses, the better off Obama's outlook will be.

The long campaign also has helped both Clinton and Obama to get a better idea of what's really on voters' minds. Obama kept Clinton to an embarrassingly close victory in Indiana by challenging her on an issue of real importance to regular folks: her proposed "gas tax holiday." Obama attacked the idea, also favored by Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, calling it a "gimmick" that sounded good but wouldn't really save motorists money in the short run. It would only cost them in the long run. He gambled on the good sense of ordinary voters, which is always a risky proposition, but he apparently won. That's encouraging.

The big question facing Obama and his party now is whether he can win enough working-class voters in the fall. I wouldn't count him out.

Autumn is the big game changer. So far his ability to win working-class voters has been held back by Clinton's big name and influential friends in the party's hierarchy. Most of the Democratic mayors, governors, county chairs and others who have supported Clinton will be working for Obama, if he's the nominee. So will Clinton, if she keeps her word.

And the party's battle-tested nominee is likely to face McCain in a year that does not favor anyone with connections to the Bush administration. McCain is portraying himself as a "change" candidate, a theme that Obama has all but made his own.

Polls show race is a very real factor, but when is it not? The Associated Press, for example, has found that "about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black for president." I'm not surprised. I've seen worse. I've been around long enough to be gratified that the percentage is that low.

Either way, if Obama is nominated, he needs to remember that some people lie to pollsters in matters of race. He's already seen that in some of the primaries. That's only made Obama work that much harder. Thanks to the long primary season, he can work smarter, too.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc

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