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HALL COLUMN: Is Obama the Great Blue Hope?

The noise you hear in the background are political engines priming in preparation of a presidential campaign season that will likely surpass the past two topsy-turvy, down-to-the-wire elections.

Like the election of 2000, we are facing an open seat. That is where the similarities &045; at least from this vantage point &045; seem to cease.

In the Republican primary, no heir-apparent has emerged. Sen. John McCain of Arizona could be considered the early front-runner. Still, he has former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as serious threats. Further complicating matters is that none of the three are adored by social conservatives, who have been attributed with Republican victories in 2000 and 2004. That leaves room for a fourth candidate to rise to the top, if Romney does not solidify this base.

On the Democratic side, the game is similar. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is easily the front-runner to win her party’s nomination. But then comes the burning question: Can she win a general election? Conventional wisdom says McCain would give her the best bet for a victory, while Giuliani would compete with her in the middle and Romney could win enough conservatives over to take the White House.

With so many unknowns &045; and perceived knowns &045; surrounding Clinton, Democrats are looking for their out &045; their new John Kerry to their old Howard Dean. Surprisingly enough, at the top of the list is a young, black, freshman senator who is said to have little to no political experience. How’s that for ironic?

If you are a political talking head handicapping a race for president, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., might not be your best bet. An African American has never won the White House. Hell, an African American has never won a major party nomination. And look at former Sen. John Edwards if you want to know what little to no political experience buys you. Furthermore, the last time a U.S. senator was elected to the White House was in 1960 when then-Sen. John F. Kennedy was elected. However, this could be a moot point with Clinton and McCain in the race.

But what if you are not a political talking head handicapping the race? What if you threw conventional wisdom out the door and took a look at some oft-overlooked truisms and recent tidbits.

First of all, while Obama is black, he is not the same kind of polarizing political figure as the Rev. Jesse Jackson or the Rev. Al Sharpton. While Jackson and Sharpton are leaders of the black community who often have valid points to make &045; Jackson more so than Sharpton &045; they have never been able to find broad-based support. Even black voters abandoned Sharpton during the 2004 Democratic primary and Jackson late in the 1988 Democratic primary, where Jackson was once thought to be the front-runner.

But Obama does have mainstream appeal. The old adage is that photos are worth a thousand words. Take a look at the AP, the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and other national news archives. When you see Obama at an event, he is surrounded by throngs of people &045; black and white, old and young, men and women. Want an elementary litmus test? Compare the number of gray-haired white men pictured in crowds with Obama versus the number with Sharpton or Jackson.

Past race, political experience is often listed as one of his negatives. Clinton is six years into her only elected office. Prior to becoming president, Bush was governor of Texas for only five years. If Obama runs in 2008, he will have four years as a U.S. senator to go along with his eight years as a state senator in Illinois, during which time he was praised for being a bridge-builder between Republicans and Democrats and won the endorsement of police and medical groups &045; both historically Republican backers.

Obama being tagged as inexperienced in political affairs is premature. His tenure in the legislature and to date as a U.S. senator displays his ability and intelligence when it comes to crafting law and being a political leader.

But he is still an untested commodity. To become U.S. senator, he won a Democratic primary with 52 percent of the vote on the first ballot out of a field of seven, including a multi-millionaire businessman and a statewide elected official. While impressive, it only speaks to a Democratic base, a base that nationally is already embracing him &045; if only cautiously and perhaps as a second-choice.

In the general election, Obama was given a pass. His first Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, had to bow out after court records revealed details of embarrassing sexual allegations by his ex-wife. After Republicans failed to find a suitable replacement, they moved Alan Keyes from Maryland three months before the election and put his name on the ballot. Obama took 70 percent of the vote. Bottom line: his appeal against a strong Republican opponent is still unknown.

Given, race will be a factor, especially in the South, but Obama has the best chance yet to cross those lines. And as for experience, history is still writing his chapter. What he does as a member of the majority party in Congress will speak volumes about his chances as a serious candidate.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached at (334) 289-4017 or by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.