The emerging 2008 presidential field is unusual not only for its size, but also for its diversity.
On the Democratic side, which could eventually total 11 candidates, the presumptive front-runner is a woman, a former first lady, closely challenged by a black rock star of a candidate whose middle name is Hussein. And on the Republican side, with an equal number of possible candidates, the hard-charging challenger is a Mormon, the front-runners are more centrist than the average Republican and the only Southerner of any stature is a Pennsylvania-born former House speaker who resigned amid a swirl of controversy.
So far — and it has hardly just begun — the 2008 presidential campaign reflects the change in America’s demographics and Americans’ attitudes, the chance nontraditional politicians sense to seize a rare moment, the opportunity to move to front of the bus and make a turn in the ever-winding road of American history.
“The field does reflect the country’s increasing pluralism,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “It’s a story of change, chance and history.”
The sexual, racial, ethnic and religious barriers to the White House seem to be fading. A bit, anyway.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York could become the first female president; Sen. Barack Hussein Obama of Illinois, the first black; Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the first Hispanic; Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the first Mormon; Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas or former NATO commander Wesley Clark, the first converted Catholic.
“Voters are less concerned than we are in Washington whether [the candidates] are Democrat or Republican, or men or women, or white or of color, than they are about what they have to say and whether they can produce in tangible ways for people,” said Donna Brazile, who was the first black woman to manage a presidential campaign, Al Gore’s in 2000.
By 2050, whites will be a minority of the American people.
So, in the coming presidential campaign, “if the key issue becomes tolerance, then voting for a woman or a minority (or a Mormon) can be a badge of honor, objective proof that a voter is not prejudiced in an era of dramatically increasing diversity,” said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for American Politics at the University of Virginia.
The bruising Senate contest in Tennessee between Bob Corker, the white mayor of Chattanooga, and Harold E. Ford Jr., the black congressman from Memphis, may suggest otherwise. But in losing to Mr. Corker, “Ford did much better in a very conservative Old South state than originally expected,” added Mr. Sabato.
The diverse presidential field for 2008 is also, in part, a result of the contest being the most open White House contest in more than three-quarters of a century. Not since 1928 has there been a presidential campaign in which no president or vice president is seeking the chief executive’s job.
“Having a wide-open field encourages new types of candidates to run for president,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University.
As is always the case, there is no shortage of U.S. senators and governors seeking the presidency in 2008.
“And until recently, these offices have been the near-exclusive preserve of white males,” Mr. Pitney said. “That’s starting to change, but the key word is ‘starting.’ There is still only one African-American in the Senate.”
Still, the Senate, like the rest of the country, is “no longer the province of white male leaders,” added Mr. West. Come January the number of female senators will be a record 16.
And, even more significantly, the House will be led by its first female speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.
“Candidates from diverse backgrounds now believe they have a legitimate shot at being president,” Mr. West said. “And after eight years of [President] Bush, the country may be open to nontraditional candidates.”