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Will Americans Vote Outside the Box?

For more than 200 years, American Presidents have been, with one exception, white, male, and Protestant. In 2008, a number of presidential 'firsts' are possible.

By Adam Nagourney in Washington


The next President of the United States won't be inaugurated until January 2009, but the race is already well under way. Among those in the running: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, whose father was from Kenya; Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, the wife of former President Bill Clinton and the first First Lady to be elected to public office; Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts and a Mormon; and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, whose mother is Mexican.

But the question remains: Are Americans ready to send a black man, a woman, a Hispanic, or a Mormon to the White House?

Women and minorities have made tremendous gains in winning public office. The new Congress includes 87 women (among them, the first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi of California). That compares with 25 in 1984, the year Representative Geraldine Ferraro, a Democrat from New York, became the first woman to run as a major-party vice-presidential candidate.

There are now 43 blacks, 30 Hispanics, and 16 Mormons in Congress (along with 43 Jews, and for the first time, a Muslim—Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota). A Gallup poll in September showed a steady rise in the number of people who expect the nation to elect a woman or an African-American as President one day.

Times are indeed changing. But how much?

Over the past eight years, according to Democratic and Republican analysts, the country has shifted markedly on the issue of gender. Analysts say voters could very well be open to electing a woman in 2008. That is reflected, they say, in polls and in the continued success of women running for office, in red and blue states alike.

"The country is ready," says Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who ran for the Republican nomination for President in 2000. "I'm not saying it's going to happen in '08. But the country is ready."

For all the excitement stirred by Obama, it is less certain that an African-American could win a presidential election. Not as many blacks have been elected to prominent positions as women. And demographics might be a factor as well: Blacks are concentrated in about 25 states—typically blue ones, like New York and California. While black candidates cannot assume automatic support from black voters, they would at least provide a base. In states without large black populations, the candidate's "crossover appeal" would have to be substantial.

Governors As A Barometer

"All evidence is that a white female has an advantage over a black male, for reasons of our cultural heritage," says the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, the civil rights leader who ran for President in 1984 and 1988. Still, he says, for black and female candidates, "it's easier, emphatically so."

Geraldine Ferraro has a similar take. "I think it's more realistic for a woman than it is for an African-American," she says. "There is a certain amount of racism that exists in the United States. Whether it's conscious or not, it's true.

"Women are 51 percent of the population," she adds. Blacks make up about 13 percent.

Many analysts suggest that changing attitudes can best be measured in choices for Governors since, like Presidents, they are judged as chief executives. There is currently one black Governor—Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts, the second in the nation since Reconstruction.

By contrast, women are Governors of nine states, including Washington, Arizona, and Michigan. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan, who won a second term in November, says that when she first ran, she had to work harder. "Not this time," she says. "They are used to a woman being Governor."

Of course, Governors don't have to handle national security. And Hillary Clinton has used her six years in the Senate to try to counter the stereotype that women would not be as strong on the issue, especially with the nation at war. Clinton sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and was a supporter, at least early on, of the war in Iraq.

Obama says that many black voters have serious questions about whether America is ready to elect a black President.

"I think there is a protectiveness and a skepticism within the African-American community that is grounded in their experiences," says Obama. "But the skepticism doesn't mean there's a lack of support."

Obama is in many ways an unusual black politician, and that is why many Democrats, as well as Republicans, view him as so viable a candidate.

He is from the post-civil-rights generation of black leaders and not identified with more polarizing politicians like Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton of New York. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile says she has been deluged with e-mails from people looking to volunteer for Obama, mostly from whites.

While race and gender may be issues in American politics, they are not the only ones, particularly when it comes to the presidency. Obama's lack of experience may be far more of an issue than his color. He is 45 and in only his second year as a Senator.

Clinton faces other issues. She is something of a polarizing figure, with devoted supporters, but a significant number of voters tell pollsters they would never vote for her. "Clinton fatigue" may also be a factor. For some voters, two terms of Bill may have been enough of Clintons in the Oval Office.

Religious Issues?

Religion has been an issue in the past. Romney, a Mormon (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith), may face questions about his faith, just as John F. Kennedy—the nation's first and only Roman Catholic President—did in 1960. Many Americans feared that a Catholic President might be influenced by Church policies, or consult the Pope when making crucial decisions.

Kennedy tried to address those fears in 1960 in a speech to Baptist ministers in Houston.

"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," he said, "where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source."

Since 1960, several Catholics have run for President, along with several Mormons (including Romney's father, George, the Governor of Michigan, in 1968). While Mormons consider themselves Christians, some Christians do not accept them as such and view the Mormon Church, which is based in Salt Lake City, Utah, with suspicion.

Bill Richardson, who was elected to a second term as New Mexico's Governor in November with a record 69 percent of the vote, is optimistic about Americans' open-mindedness.

In an interview on ABC's This Week, he said: "I believe this country is a very tolerant, positive country. I believe the country would be ready for a woman President, an African-American President, Hispanic President.

"But I wouldn't run as a Hispanic candidate," Richardson added. "I would run as an American, proud to be Hispanic, proud of my heritage."