But when the two leading contenders for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination appeared earlier this month in Washington before a beefy, brush-cut audience at an International Assn. of Fire Fighters convention, the result was reversed. Obama received a tepid response while Clinton blew away the room when she followed him to the stage.
These contrasting responses signal the resurgence of a dynamic that has repeatedly shaped, and frequently decided, the contests for the Democratic presidential nomination over the last generation.
Obama's early support is following a pattern familiar from the campaigns of other brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform, from Eugene McCarthy in 1968 to Gary Hart in 1984 to Bill Bradley in 2000. Like those predecessors, Obama is running strong with well-educated voters but demonstrating much less support among those without college degrees.
That trend may be exaggerated at the moment by the fact that Obama, a relative newcomer, is better known among better-educated voters, and it could be mitigated in the future by his potential appeal to African Americans. But it is not a pattern Obama can allow to harden. All of the candidates whose support fit that profile ultimately lost the nomination to rivals whose support was rooted in the blue-collar and minority communities where Clinton is strongest in early surveys.
"Obama has got to expand his base in order to be consistently competitive," said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic strategist not affiliated with any of the 2008 candidates.
Since the 1960s, Democratic nominating contests regularly have come down to a struggle between a candidate who draws support primarily from upscale, economically comfortable voters liberal on social and foreign policy issues, and a rival who relies mostly on downscale, financially strained voters drawn to populist economics and somewhat more conservative views on cultural and national security issues.
It's not much of an oversimplification to say that the blue-collar Democrats tend to see elections as an arena for defending their interests, and the upscale voters see them as an opportunity to affirm their values. Each group finds candidates who reflect those priorities.
Democratic professionals often describe this sorting as a competition between upscale "wine track" candidates and blue-collar "beer track" contenders. Another way to express the difference is to borrow from historian John Milton Cooper Jr.'s telling comparison of the pugnacious Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic Woodrow Wilson. Cooper described the long rivalry between Republican Roosevelt and Democrat Wilson as a contest between a warrior and a priest. In modern times, the Democratic presidential race has usually pitted a warrior against a priest.
Warrior candidates stress their ability to deliver on kitchen table concerns and revel in political combat. They tout their experience and flout their scars. Their greatest strength is usually persistence, not eloquence; they don't so much inspire as reassure. Think of Harry Truman in 1948, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and, in a somewhat more diluted fashion, Walter Mondale in 1984 and John Kerry in 2004.
The priests, whose lineage runs back through McCarthy to Adlai Stevenson, present a very different face. They write books and sometimes verse. They observe the campaign's hurly-burly through a filter of cool, witty detachment. Their campaigns become crusades, fueled as much by inchoate longing for a "new politics" as tangible demands for new policies. In the past quarter of a century, Hart, Bradley and the late neo-liberal Paul Tsongas in 1992 each embodied the priest in Democratic presidential politics.
Some candidates transcend these divisions. In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was a warrior who quoted Aeschylus. Bill Clinton blended a warrior's resiliency with a priest's promise of transformative ("third way") politics. But most Democratic candidates fall clearly on one or the other side of this divide.
Hillary Clinton has firmly positioned herself as a warrior. She wowed the firefighters' convention not through eloquence but passionate declarations of shared commitments. "You were there when we needed you, and I want you to know I will be there when you need me," she insisted. Her campaign already views non-college voters, especially women, as the foundation of her coalition. Her stump speech, centered on a promise to represent "invisible" Americans, targets the economic anxieties of blue-collar families.
Obama's aides resist the collar, but in the early stages, he looks more like a priest. He's written two bestselling books. Like McCarthy, Hart and Howard Dean, he's ignited a brush fire on college campuses. His initial message revolves heavily around eloquent but somewhat amorphous promises of reform and civic renewal. He laments "the smallness of our politics where power is always trumping principle."
Not only have priests — including Hart, Tsongas and Bradley — run better among voters with college degrees, they've tended to run well in the Northeast, the West Coast and portions of the upper Midwest where wine track voters congregate; the warriors usually thrive in interior states such as Ohio, Missouri or Tennessee, where college graduates constitute 40% or less of the Democratic electorate.
That picture is coming into focus again, with one twist. The priests typically have been flattened among black voters, but Obama's African American heritage is helping him, already, to split the black vote fairly closely with Clinton in most surveys.
Among whites, Clinton so far is showing broader reach. She's competitive upscale and dominating downscale, a combination that allows her to lead Obama in most early polls. In the latest nationwide Gallup survey, for instance, Obama led Clinton by 3 percentage points among white, college-educated Democrats, but she bested him by 23 points among whites without college degrees, and she led overall.
In a Detroit News survey released last week, Obama led Clinton by an impressive 14 percentage points among Michigan whites with college degrees, but she led him by more than twice as much among whites without advanced education and held a double-digit lead in the state overall.
Recent Quinnipiac University surveys in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania similarly showed Clinton leading Obama by at least 2 to 1 among non-college whites, enough to put her comfortably ahead even though the two ran more closely among college-educated white voters. The latest University of New Hampshire poll shows a similar trend.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, dismisses these numbers as artifacts of his candidate's lower name recognition with non-college voters, who aren't yet as tuned in to the race. Axelrod said that Obama, through his campaigns for the Illinois state Senate and the U.S. Senate and his experience as a Saul Alinsky-style community organizer on Chicago's South Side, has demonstrated that he can bond with white working-class voters.
"This is a guy who began as a community organizer banging on the doors of government to get some attention for people who were living in the shadow of a closed steel mill," Axelrod said. "So his profile is not the typical effete reformer profile."
But familiarity alone may not solve Obama's blue-collar challenge. Rick Gale, the president of the firefighters' Wisconsin affiliate, was shaking his head after Obama's reform-heavy message to the union convention. "In my view, that's really not a message for our guys," Gale said. "They're really not afraid of politics."
Besides his inroads among blacks and his pedigree in community organizing, Obama has other potential advantages over earlier reform candidates. The share of college graduates in the Democratic coalition is rising. And Obama would benefit if John Edwards, who is running as a blue-collar warrior and reaffirmed his commitment to the campaign Thursday, cuts into Clinton's downscale support (just as Edwards will benefit if Obama draws more upscale voters from Clinton).
But, with all those caveats, no candidate in decades has won the Democratic nomination relying primarily on upscale voters. Obama isn't likely to break that pattern, especially because Clinton appears to be an acceptable, if not always riveting, choice for so much of the party.
Since Obama entered the campaign, the question he's faced most often is whether he is "black enough" to win votes from African Americans. But the more relevant issue may be whether Obama is "blue enough" to increase his support among blue-collar whites.