Conventional wisdom in presidential race already full of holes

March 06, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Presidential campaigns are educational. The 2008 primaries are a year away, but we're already seeing the conventional wisdom flipped on its head, teaching us Americans new lessons about ourselves. Who, for example, would have expected former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, known to favor abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, to be surging ahead of Sen. John McCain of Arizona in major polls of Republicans - even among Southerners and Christian conservatives?

How did he do it? Washington's chattering classes easily explain it:

Mr. McCain, who patched up his angry relations with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and turned against Roe v. Wade, is seen by rock-ribbed conservative Republicans as a flip-flopper.

Mr. Giuliani scores big as a national security icon after his heroic take-charge leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A closer look at the polling reveals another reason: A lot of the conservatives who support Mr. Giuliani as a keep-us-safe leader don't know what else he believes in.

In a Time magazine poll, more than a third of voters overall and almost half of self-described born-again white Christians say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was married three times. But a 56 percent majority of voters and 54 percent of born-agains either said incorrectly that this does not describe Mr. Giuliani or said that they did not know if it did.

More than half of voters overall gave similarly incorrect or don't-know responses on the questions of whether Mr. Giuliani supports President Bush's Iraq war policy (he does) or opposes gun control (he doesn't).

Speaking of knowing or not knowing enough about a candidate, the conventional wisdom also has flipped in favor of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. Remember the stories and commentaries, including my own, that questioned whether Mr. Obama was "black enough" to win black votes? Mainstream media reported with great surprise that polls showed Mr. Obama lagging behind the party's front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, among black voters.

As I opined at the time, this should come as a surprise only to those who expect black voters to reflexively jump behind a black candidate. Now, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Mr. Obama has more than doubled his black support.

But as heartwarming as it is to see that a woman can be a presidential front-runner and an African-American can mount a serious challenge, it is saddening to see prejudice rearing its ugly head against another candidate: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Although about two-thirds of voters in the Time poll said it did not matter to them if a candidate were a Mormon, as the Republican Romney is, the other third said they would be less likely to support one. Only 5 percent said they'd be less likely to support an African-American, and 13 percent less likely to support a woman. A similar Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll last July found more than twice as many voters said they would oppose a Muslim or a Mormon than a Jew or a Catholic. Americans have made progress since the day John F. Kennedy proved a Catholic could win, but not enough.

Now The Sun reports that Mr. Obama's ancestors may have included slaveholders. Again, the conventional wisdom is turned on its head. Who knows? At this rate, Mr. Obama could be the first presidential candidate to owe reparations - to himself.

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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