Sunday, February 18, 2007

The 2008 presidential race has heated up early, and there’s nothing suggesting it will cool down soon. Top-tier candidates such as Sen. Hillary Clinton, New York Democrat, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democat, better figure out how to pace themselves. In fact, the others should all follow Mr. Obama’s lead and start lining up key endorsements to help them spread their message.

There are reports flying up and down the I-95 corridor from Richmond to Washington, D.C., that Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is expected to make a major announcement on the 2008 presidential race. Mr. Kaine, now serving in his second year as governor of the Commonwealth, was expected to endorse Virginia’s favorite son and former Gov. Mark Warner, before the latter’s unexpected departure from the race. Now, rumors have it Mr. Kaine, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a civil rights attorney, will endorse Mr. Obama for president.

On paper, these two candidates seem to come from similar walks of life. Mr. Kaine was born in Kansas and later decided he wanted to devote his life to public service. Mr. Obama, born to a mother from Kansas and raised in Hawaii, started his career by being a community organizer in the tough streets on Chicago’s South Side. Both candidates talk openly about their faith and the values they share with most Americans. Still, most people I spoke with down in Virginia were somewhat shocked to hear Mr. Kaine was preparing an early announcement before any of the other candidates got a chance to come down and make their cases.

Perhaps Mr. Kaine is hearing a new call — the call Mr. Obama described in his announcement for a different kind of politics that can help deliver results and not more partisanship. Mr. Obama calls it the politics of hope, and there’s no better place to remove the politics of cynicism than in my native South, where the issue of “race” remains a hot topic of conversation even when it’s not being discussed.

The South is changing, and states like Virginia are leading the way — starting with electing the nation’s first black governor since Reconstruction, Doug Wilder, in 1989. Virginia also has one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, and Forbes magazine recently wrote it’s one of the best states in which to own a business.

With a large new influx of residents clamoring to work in its technology corridor and proposed major investments in transportation and infrastructure, the state that gave birth to many of the nation’s Founding Fathers and eight U.S. presidents, is poised to lead the new South.

Mr. Kaine’s endorsement could help Mr. Obama immensely in the South by helping him raise money, select delegates and organize volunteers to help compete in neighboring states. Can you imagine if other Southern governors like Phil Breseden of Tennessee or Michael Easley of North Carolina or Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana (my home state) would wave the Obama banner and stand next to him as he competes for the support of their constituents? Richard Nixon’s famous “Southern strategy” would become history, and America would finally turn the page on what Obama calls the “politics of yesterday.”

Mr. Kaine backing Mr. Obama could have a ripple effect throughout the South and perhaps force other white Southern lawmakers to do the same. Now, this would be revolutionary and a welcome departure from the past, when black political leaders endorsed white candidates but often received nothing in return. Isn’t it time for white politicians to reciprocate for years of taking the black vote for granted?

The last time Virginia voted for a Democrat for president was back in 1964, and the candidate was a fellow Southerner, Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the tide may be turning. The JJ Dinner where Mr. Obama delivered the keynote speech sold out months ago and is 4 times the size of the last dinner when there were four presidential candidates in attendance.

I still find it hard to believe that a white Southern governor is prepared to throw his support behind a young African-American senator from the North. We are a long way from becoming a colorblind society, but it would help if we had colorblind politicians.

Mr. Kaine, to his credit, will play a major role in writing this new chapter of race relations based on respect, shared values and matters of conscience, not color. This new chapter may take years to finish, but it may start this presidential season in Virginia.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call and former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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