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Outside column: Next stop on campaign trail: Bizarro World

Posted: Wednesday, January 23, 2008

At least one clear winner has emerged in the presidential campaign so far: irony.

The indisputably black candidate in the race is challenged over his very blackness. The indisputably female candidate in the race, who has spent so many years proving to men that she is tough, benefits when she gets a little teary.

The Mormon candidate, running in a party that seems to highly value religion, is no doubt losing votes because of his. The same candidate, also the richest, finally gets some traction when he focuses on how much the economy is hurting almost everyone but people like himself.

The openly evangelical Christian candidate in the race takes umbrage when he is singled out for questions about religion. And the mythical "first black president," Bill Clinton, has spent a lot of his time running down the candidate who would be the real one.

On the Democratic side, the party is trying to deal with an issue that was supposed to be the other party's problem, namely race. Republicans have failed for years to attract many votes from minorities, and black voters for half a century have been the most reliable votes in the party. So the Democrats cannot afford to alienate the black bloc. But the intraparty fighting has some ugly overtones, not the least of which is a possible effort by the Clinton camp to paint Obama as the "black candidate" in the race instead of the candidate who just happened to be black while he was lapping the field of overwhelmingly white Iowa voters.

Officially, Obama's campaign called for some form of truce, and Clinton's campaign accepted. But it's a bell that cannot be unrung. Race - black, brown and white - will almost certainly fuel the next contests. We just don't know yet who benefits, short or long term, from that.

It seems clear, though, that the Clinton campaign saw trouble when Obama transcended race by so convincingly winning the nearly all-white Iowa caucuses. As such, her campaign saw the greater benefit in more voters seeing Obama through the prism of race.

That might seem like a good idea - except that in South Carolina, nearly half of the Democratic primary electorate is black and might see right through that tactic. National polling seems to suggest that African-American voters now support Obama over Clinton 2-1. So the message clearly was not aimed at those voters.

Clinton is nothing if not a nimble candidate. Being able to pivot is important because a beginning campaign strategy rarely holds up and needs to be retooled. She got her mileage out of making race an issue and has moved on to the economy.

One Republican wisely reinvented on the fly as well: Mitt Romney. Trying to be the values candidate was a failure; so was his attempt to be the toughest guy on terrorists. So the former venture capitalist and management consultant finally figured out he should talk about money. He got on his knees in Michigan and begged voters to believe he saw the economy's troubles and would be the sunny, focused, Mr. Fix-It. At this stage, his campaign message seems to be: Whatever works. This week.

Now that John McCain is not running for re-election as president of New Hampshire, he is touting his strong opposition to abortion instead of his record as a reformer.

Then there is Huckabee, perhaps the most adaptable of the group. During a debate in far more secular New Hampshire, the man who won Iowa on the backs of religious conservatives questioned why he, the most overtly religious candidate, seemed to get all the pesky faith questions. He went from man of God to man of change. Now, in South Carolina, he's back in the pews.

Finally, we have the curiosity of Rudy Giuliani's campaign. He begins the race with a huge lead in national polls primarily because his was one of the few names voters actually knew. He raised a ton of money. He spent a lot of valuable time and money in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. But he didn't really compete there, and voters punished him for it. So he lost the one thing he had going for him, a thin presumption that he was a national front-runner.

And he is staking his campaign, which sounds almost no note other than "be afraid," on the results in Florida, where voters are more focused on the economy.

Ironic.

• Michael Tackett is the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief.



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