Democrats seek change, with some style

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

As the race for the Democratic presidential nomination rounds the Labor Day turn and begins the stretch run, the pre-race form book is in tatters.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is the first woman with a real shot at winning the White House, but her gender has barely registered as an issue. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, running a strong second, is the first African American to become a major contender, but what little controversy there has been over race has come from some in the black community raising the issue of his cultural ties.

As for former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who showed well as the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2004, he’s got the smile, the personal fortune and the strong resume that are supposed to give candidates an edge. But so far, he’s failed to break free.

And the thing that’s ripped up the form book is not Democrats. It’s President Bush. With an unpopular war driving his approval ratings to record lows and his party reeling from scandal to scandal, Bush has created an environment in which Democratic voters -- and many independent voters too -- seem to be looking first and foremost for change.

All across the country, they appear ready to overlook such historically deal-breaking issues as race and gender and under-nourished resumes, focusing instead on personality and character in their quest for something new.

Exactly how much change voters want, and whether the attitudes of Democrats choosing a nominee in early 2008 will reflect the feelings of voters as a whole come election day are open questions.

But at least for now, the unusual and the unexpected are the winning combination, as Priscilla King, 67, of Bow, N.H., suggested during an Edwards event last month.

She turned out to hear Edwards, but she’s partial to Obama -- for a reason most analysts had considered a potentially disqualifying handicap: the first-term Illinois senator’s lack of experience.

“He’s fresh,” she said in an interview. “He’s inexperienced, and so far, experience hasn’t gotten us too far.”

The feelings King expressed at the Edwards rally illustrate something else about the Democratic race: Issues are not upper-most in voters’ minds these days.

King’s husband is diabetic. The medical care he needs is so expensive, she told Edwards, that they’re left with only $62 a week to live on. If policy were what counted most, that should make King a natural Edwards supporter.

Edwards has put forward a healthcare plan that experts consider the most detailed and carefully crafted of any major Democratic candidate. If enacted, it could relieve the Kings’ financial pressures.

But despite Edwards’ careful attention to her story or the substantial nature of his plan, King is still taking a close look at Obama.

The topsy-turvy aspect of the race so far is evident even on the Iraq war, the issue that Democratic activists are most passionate about. Clinton has remained the party’s front-runner though she has not apologized for her vote authorizing Bush to attack Iraq, and her present position stops well short of calling for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Clinton said that as president, she would end the war, but she didn’t say exactly when. And she said she would leave some troops in place to keep terrorists “on the run.”

To be sure, differences among the candidates on Iraq can seem small. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wants U.S. troops out in six months. Edwards said in a recent debate it might take nine months. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware would need 12 months.

Or consider how close some candidates stand on the high cost of medical care and the role that corporations should have in revamping the system.

Here is Obama in Iowa City, Iowa, describing the drug and insurance industries and their place in future discussions over healthcare: “While they’ll get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair.”

Here is Edwards in Hanover, N.H.: “You give these people a seat at the table, they eat all the food.”

Again, Clinton’s stance is harder to pin down. Healthcare was nearly her political undoing in her husband’s first term in the White House. He put her in charge of drafting a comprehensive plan, and it turned into one of his most resounding presidential defeats.

Now, Sen. Clinton is proceeding gingerly. She has called for universal healthcare, but unlike Obama and Edwards, she has not yet released a plan to bring it about.

“Her policies have not been bold,” said Robert Reich, who has known Clinton since college and served as secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration but now describes himself as unaligned.

“Her caution and her hearkening back to the good years of the ‘90s might also serve to help Obama and hurt her own candidacy in terms of who is the truly new and transformative candidate, " he said.

More than policy, what the Democratic candidates are selling is biography.

Obama’s is the most unusual, and so far it seems to be a plus. His mother was American, his father Kenyan and he spent much of his childhood living abroad. He attended Harvard Law School, then went into community organizing and politics.

That life story seems to appeal to those seeking something different. It’s also made him a hard target for rivals: He hasn’t done one thing long enough to build a record to shoot at.

Clinton has the opposite problem: She has been in the public eye so long that a significant number of voters have negative opinions about her -- and she hasn’t yet found a way to change those minds. Among Democrats, a solid majority wants her to win the nomination, but those who oppose her seem implacable.

“If she gets the nomination I will not even vote,” said Pat Steinfort, of Mason City, Iowa, a retiree who says her nickname is “Pat the Democrat.” “I don’t like Hillary, period. She’s too strong-minded.”

Clinton’s unfavorable rating in June was 44%, compared with 24% for Obama and 32% for Edwards, according to a CNN poll.

She attacks the problem by talking about her childhood; about the hardscrabble existence of her mother, Dorothy Rodham; about her own distinctly human tastes.

“I’ve got to tell you, I love to shop,” she told an audience in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on July Fourth.

Obama too sometimes goes out of his way to suggest that he’s only human. Campaigning at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines last month, he allowed himself to be catapulted 125 feet straight up into the air on a ride called “Big Ben.”

All candidates do such things to demonstrate they’re just like everyone else, but in Obama’s case, there’s an extra dimension to it.

Democratic strategist Robert M. Shrum said that when Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, he was viewed as a black candidate.

“Obama is seen as a Democratic candidate who happens to be African American,” Shrum said. “He’s bigger than his race just as John F. Kennedy was bigger than his religion.” President Kennedy was Catholic.

In New Hampshire, Edwards trails Clinton by 24 points, Obama by 13 -- though Edwards has pulled ahead in Iowa in at least one poll. According to a Time magazine poll last month, he is five points ahead of Clinton and seven ahead of Obama.

At an outdoor rally in Wolfeboro, N.H., in late August, Edwards sought to deliver a stem-winding speech freighted with populist themes.

“I’m going to be really blunt about this,” he said, in his honeyed Southern accent. “I think the system is corrupt. It is corrupt and it does not work.”

Afterward, Kalin Jordan, 19, a college student, said she still preferred Obama. “He’s something really new and fresh,” she said.

And Edwards? “He has the best hair in the race, I’ll tell you that,” she said.