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Obama Vs. McCain Would Be Clean Contest of Idealists

The victories of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) in Iowa represent the triumph of freshness, hope, honesty and optimism over calculation, plasticity, the past and anger.

[IMGCAP(1)]There’s every reason to think that the same impulses will prevail in New Hampshire, producing another victory for Obama and one for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who — if we’re lucky — could end up their respective party nominees.

Obama vs. McCain could produce an epic battle of new vs. old, liberal vs. conservative, dove vs. hawk. But it could be a clean battle between principled contestants, either of whom could unite the country when it’s over.

It’s hard to see how Huckabee, amiable and appealing though the former Arkansas governor is, can make his evangelicalism and lack of foreign policy experience work in New Hampshire or the big urban Feb. 5 primary states.

Huckabee’s greatest gift to the Republican Party could be his recognition that even GOP voters want attention paid to middle-class economic anxiety, not lock step obeisance to the Club for Growth formula of tax and spending cuts.

McCain has considerable history resisting GOP orthodoxy, which has hurt him in the past but now serves him well. He’s a conviction politician running — especially in New Hampshire — against a candidate whose convictions appear to be a matter of convenience.

Both former Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and richly financed Republican Mitt Romney suffered in Iowa from a perception that they were not “authentic.”

Once a moderate on abortion, gay rights and immigration, ex-businessman and Massachusetts Gov. Romney re-tooled himself into a hard-line conservative to win GOP market share. He became nativist Rep. Tom Tancredo’s (R-Colo.) candidate on immigration and his crowning pander, in my mind, was his vow during one debate to slash domestic spending but preserve farm subsidies as necessary to maintain America’s food supply.

Romney once enjoyed a double-digit lead in Iowa, bought with millions of ad dollars, yet lost to Huckabee by 9 points. A month ago, he had an 18-point lead going into New Hampshire, the state right next door to his home in Massachusetts. Now, he trails McCain by a point or two.

If Romney loses two straight, it’s hard to see how he recovers, although McCain will have to fight hard for the nomination. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign has cratered, but Iowa may have revived the all-but-moribund campaign of former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who finished third, tied with McCain.

The GOP race could develop into a three-way battle between Thompson, as the establishment conservative, Huckabee, the rural, religious populist, and McCain, the scarred-up happy warrior. It’s impossible to say who’d win.

On the Democratic side, Iowa was a devastating blow to one-time “inevitable” nominee Hillary Clinton. She sometimes played a victim, sometimes a loyal friend, sometimes an aggressor (as in “now the fun part starts” preceding attacks on Obama), sometimes the agent of change and sometimes seasoned “president on day one.”

The result was — is — that she’s viewed as calculating, cold, unlikable, the manager of a “machine” and part of the past. Her husband, Bill, was a reminder of both the best and worst of his own presidency and Iowa voters clearly wanted what Obama was offering — a big change.

Clinton actually finished third in Iowa, slightly behind the angriest candidate in either party, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who built his campaign around the idea that all that ails America stems from “corporate greed” that must be relentlessly battled.

The Iowa result — and Obama’s pulling close in New Hampshire — suggest that Democrats want something entirely different from Edwards’ populist rage or a return to the Clinton era’s family psychodrama and partisan rancor.

Obama’s dazzling victory speech in Iowa promised reconciliation and national unity, hope and optimism, an end to polarized party warfare and cynical gamesmanship. I’ve long thought that Obama’s message is exactly what the country yearns for.

“You came together as Democrats, Republicans and Independents,” he told his Iowa rally, “to stand up and say that we are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.”

Not the least of America’s old divisions to be healed would be those of race and class. Obama is half-black, half-white, a Harvard Law School star who also worked as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago.

The Republican Party can’t match that blend, but it would do well to develop its own message of national unity — and find a candidate to carry it.

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