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In sealing nomination, Obama makes history

He's the first African-American to head presidential ticket of a major party, winning Democrats' long war of attrition.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 5, 2008


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The 2008 Democratic presidential primaries may well be remembered as a Waterloo for conventional wisdom.

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The vaunted Clinton political machine was supposed to be unstoppable. Barack Obama was labeled "not black enough" to win over African-American voters. The primary calendar was so front-loaded that it would assuredly, experts predicted, mint a winner by Super Tuesday. No Democrat, the theory went, could win the nomination without big victories on the coasts.

With the old verities falling like so many bowling pins, it is perhaps no wonder that the nomination fell to the candidate best able to communicate – and embody – change.

The young first-term senator won not just because of a shrewd campaign that inspired legions of new voters, set fundraising records, and invested in oft-overlooked small-state caucuses. Nor was it just the tactical errors of Hillary Rodham Clinton, among them a strategy based on the flawed assumption of a Super Tuesday coronation.

Just as important, analysts say, was a clamor for fresh faces and new ideas from a party too long in the wilderness. For many voters, it seems, memories of the Bill Clinton era were never as uncomplicated as his wife's supporters hoped they would be, a situation worsened by what critics saw as the former president's intemperance on the campaign trail.

With President Bush's approval rating at an all-time low and more than 4 in 5 Americans telling pollsters they're unhappy with the country's direction, there has seldom been a riper moment for a sea change in Washington, analysts say.

"It's hard to know whether Obama would have gotten the nomination in another year," says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "But there was a sense in the Democratic Party that this was an unusual year, ... the country really was ready for something different. The difference happened to come in the guise of a black man, but it could just have easily been a Latino or a different woman. There was a sense that this was a time to break the mold."

And voters did break the mold. The nominating race opened with eight Democratic hopefuls. One by one, the candidates with venerable Washington résumés – among them statesmen like Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. and Christopher Dodd – fell away. Left standing were the nation's most successful female and black presidential candidates, a historymaking duel in a country that once denied women and African-Americans the right to vote.

Democrats' fault lines exposed

The nip-and-tuck battle yielded record turnouts, energized Democrats in states long resigned to irrelevance, and stirred hope for a more inclusive America.

But it also exposed demographic fault lines and stoked fears about the party's ability to unify in time for the general election. Senator Clinton relied on a coalition of women, older Americans, and working-class whites; Obama drew overwhelming support from blacks, the young, independents, and higher-earning professionals.