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Obama's biggest obstacle

If he beats Clinton, he must heed a lesson from French politics to win it all.

By Pepper D. Culpepper / February 7, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

Super Tuesday made one thing clear: Barack Obama, whose biography and oratory promise sweeping change, is locked in a street fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment candidate of the left. Yet with each passing contest, his prospects in November appear to grow brighter.

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It's déjà vu for those of us who follow French politics.

We watched in 2006 as Ségolène Royal rode to primary victory on the backs of new voters inspired by her promise to renew French politics by listening to the people. We then saw her lose the election last May to Nicolas Sarkozy, a straight-talking candidate of the right who had campaigned on a platform of change, even though the incumbent was an unpopular two-term president of the right. What lessons does Ms. Royal's defeat offer Senator Obama?

Should he win the nomination, he will have defeated Senator Clinton, who has the solid support of the Democratic Party machine. John Edwards, whose fiery rhetoric effectively highlighted growing inequality and attracted many working-class voters, has already bowed out. Obama needs the supporters of both rivals in order to win the general election.

Royal faced the same problem. In the primary process, she dispatched two heavyweight candidates of her own party. Former finance minister and current International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the steady set of hands favored by the Parisian party elite: a French Hillary Clinton.

Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius campaigned for greater state intervention and hostility to global markets: a French John Edwards, minus the golden-boy hair. Royal beat both men, each of whom had far more governing experience than she did, by combining the prospect of national electability with a sense of new political possibility that appealed both to the core Socialist voters backing Strauss-Kahn, and to the disaffected voters who supported Fabius.

What went wrong in the general election? The divorce between Royal and the Socialist Party apparatus – which had been her strength as a candidate of change – suddenly became a liability when she was running on that party's platform. Much like Obama, her primary campaign had intimated that she would build a coalition for change by breaking with old orthodoxies and making French politics more open to public participation.