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ND eyes 2008 Presidential election

Eileen Duffy | Friday, January 26, 2007

With election 2008’s Iowa primaries less than a year away, as presidential hopefuls hustle to announce their candidacies, the politically minded on Notre Dame’s campus are analyzing the field and, in some cases, itching to back their personal favorite.

The 2008 presidential election marks the first time in 80 years that neither the sitting president nor sitting vice president is running for the job, leaving the door wide open for potential candidates.

One by one, they’re walking through. On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.) have proclaimed their intentions to run for president, and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) said he will make an official announcement on Feb. 10.

Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) is one of a few Republicans officially in the running, but potential Republican candidates include Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani and former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich.

The openness of the race, coupled with frontloading in the nomination procedure – that is, slating caucuses and primaries for early in 2008 – is prompting hopefuls to announce their candidacies so early, said American Studies professor Robert Schmuhl. The candidates are likely to be set by February of that year, he said.

When it comes to the Republican primaries, Notre Dame College Republicans president Sarah Way doesn’t think McCain or Giuliani is likely to earn the candidacy. McCain is too centrist on most issues, she said, and while Giuliani will get recognition for the post-Sept. 11 work he did in New York, Way said “he’s pretty liberal on a lot of domestic issues.”

In any case, Way pointed out, there’s a lot of time before Nov. 2008 – time for journalists to dig deep.

“As soon as the media starts to really scrutinize these people,” she said, “a lot of things could change.”

Right now, though, standing out from the crowd are Obama and Clinton, who recently shared the cover of Time magazine and prompted a New York Times article to ask who America would be more likely to elect as president: a woman, or a person of color?

Clinton’s tough road

A woman, the Times concluded. Still, political science associate professor Christina Wolbrecht thinks Clinton has a tough road ahead of her.

“Any woman running for office, especially for the presidency, will have a hard time getting past our predetermined notions of what we think an executive leader looks like,” she said.

Schmuhl cited “strength, intelligence, command and empathy” as essential characteristics for a leader – but can a female display that command, wonders Wolbrecht, “without acting against her own gender?”

“She certainly is doing everything she can to counter a perception of potential weakness,” Schmuhl said, citing Clinton’s involvement in the Services Committee, her trips to military bases domestically and abroad, and her original vote to support the war in Iraq – a vote she has not called a mistake, unlike other presidential candidates.

Clinton also has a powerful force in her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who can act as either an asset or a liability for her. While many have fond memories of the Clinton years, Wolbrecht said, and Bill Clinton is incredibly charismatic, that itself can pose a challenge.

“How do you use him? Bring him to an event and have him give a speech?” Wolbrecht said. “You have to remind yourself that not very many people are as good of a speaker as Bill … including her.”

While Hillary Clinton has certainly had success in her own right as a senator, her last name remains what it is. Her victory would translate to 14 straight years of either a Bush or a Clinton residing in the White House, Schmuhl noted.

‘Rock-star magnetism’

A breath of fresh air may come in the form of Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois who leapt into the spotlight following his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention.

In a piece he wrote for the Chicago Tribune comparing Obama to former President Ronald Reagan, Schmuhl couldn’t help but mention the two politicians’ “ready smiles, rhetorical eloquence and rock-star magnetism.” Charisma not only attracts voters to a candidate, but makes them more likely to listen to what he is saying, Schmuhl said.

But the Times, Wolbrecht and political science professor Alvin Tillery all think strains of racism pervade in America.

“I am of the view that race is still too great a barrier for most black politicians to overcome in even statewide elections, let alone the presidency,” Tillery said, noting that Obama is the third black senator in history.

“I also think,” Tillery said, “that Obama will have a particularly hard time because he is a black candidate running from the political Left. I think that white voters may be more likely to vote for black candidates that they deem to be ‘conservative.'”

Complicating matters is Obama’s résumé, worryingly short for a presidential candidate. Yet one major item it lacks – a vote in the Iraq war – could benefit him tremendously: he’s not “tainted” by that record, Tillery said. Plus, senior Matt Ploszek believes Obama’s instincts in foreign affairs are dead-on, despite his lack of experience.

Ploszek, who interned with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) this summer, cited a speech Obama gave in October of 2002 as “a really prescient critique” of what has gone on in Iraq.

“I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undermined cost, with undetermined consequence,” Obama told the crowd.

Should Obama indeed announce his intention to run for president on Feb. 10, Ploszek hopes to become involved in his campaign in some capacity.

“Looking at his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, he came out and he said, there’s no reason we need to buy into this idea that America is divided along political lines, along cultural lines, along lines of education … that’s the type of thing that’s been used to get people elected,” Ploszek said.

“[But Obama has] a new, unconventional approach to politics,” he said. “… Given this environment of pretty harsh partisanship that we’ve seen over the last several years, I think [Obama] would be a good antidote for that.”