Black candidates on the rise in GOP

May 09, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Brace yourself, America. I'm going to stick my neck out and make a prediction.

I'm going to predict a future presidential matchup that, I guarantee you, is as reliable as any other serious, long-range political prediction.

Here it is: Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois vs. Republican Gov. Kenneth Blackwell of Ohio.

I know, I know, a couple of things have to fall into place before this scenario can happen.

First, Mr. Blackwell, now Ohio's secretary of state, will have to beat his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, in November. That won't be easy. A psychologist and ordained minister from southeastern Ohio's rural Appalachian region, Mr. Strickland has enough conservative appeal to hold an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association.

Nevertheless, after winning Ohio's Republican gubernatorial primary last week, as pollsters predicted, Mr. Blackwell has created a lot of excitement. He represents a racial milestone. A victory would make him the second elected black governor in U.S. history. (Democrat L. Douglas Wilder, now mayor of Richmond, Va., was elected that state's governor in 1990.)

But if former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann, who recently won Pennsylvania's Republican gubernatorial primary, also upsets incumbent Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell, there will be three black governors in U.S. history.

Yes, there are two black GOP gubernatorial nominees this year. Add the Senate races of Maryland's Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and Michigan's Keith Butler, and you can see why Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman is smiling about his much-ballyhooed outreach to woo black voters back to the party of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Yet despite Mr. Mehlman's high hopes, none of the four contenders mentioned above is favored at present to win in November.

Mr. Swann, for example, is a beloved figure in Pennsylvania, but he's a political novice running against the seasoned Mr. Rendell. Mr. Butler has been trailing another Republican candidate in polls and fundraising. Mr. Steele may well run up against a wall of resistance in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1.

Mr. Blackwell has the best profile, nationally and physically. At 6-feet-5 and 255 pounds, the former linebacker and Cincinnati mayor surprises you with his imposing size and presence. Often campaigning with a Bible in his hand, Mr. Blackwell rallied evangelical Christians and fiscal conservatives to win a GOP nomination, but now his aspirations are burdened by his state party's ethics and corruption scandals, including Republican Gov. Bob Taft's pleading no contest to ethics violations last year.

Nevertheless, even in a weakened Republican field, it's hard to count Mr. Blackwell out. Like Mr. Obama, whose national profile surged after his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Mr. Blackwell also surged to national prominence that year, although under less harmonious circumstances: He served simultaneously as Ohio's chief elections official and as state co-chairman of the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign.

As such, Mr. Blackwell caught the blame from Ohio Democrats for long lines and a shortage of voting machines in predominantly black polling places. He threw the flak right back, arguing that both white and black areas were swamped by a huge unexpected turnout. It remains to be seen whether the bitter memories of that episode will hurt Mr. Blackwell among black voters, and others.

Nevertheless, Mr. Blackwell has done surprisingly well among black voters and white and black evangelicals.

As a result, questions inevitably come up, as they have with Mr. Obama, about a presidential run. A presidential run in 2008 would be too soon for either man. But 2012? Hey, it could happen.

Imagine Mr. Obama, the rising Democratic star, running against a Republican whom a Chicago Tribune story dubbed "the anti-Obama."

At last we could say that a true diversity of black views finally was being represented on the national tickets.

Remember, you read it here first.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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