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Published: Saturday, 2/23/2008

The Obama mirage

TEXAS state Sen. Kirk Watson had an embarrassing moment the night the candidate he is supporting for president won the Wisconsin primary. MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked him to name a legislative accomplishment of Sen. Barack Obama.

"I'm not going to be able to do that tonight," Mr. Watson replied.

Or any other night. Mr. Obama, noted National Review's David Frum, has the thinnest resume of any candidate for president since William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Then 36 (the youngest man ever nominated for president), Bryan had been a congressman for only six undistinguished years when he electrified the Democratic convention with his "Cross of Gold" speech.

Bryan got creamed in the general election, which suggests there is a limit to how high a populist with little on his resume besides a charismatic personality and a silver tongue can rise.

"Barack Obama is no Muhammad Ali," said Tom Buffenbarger, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who is supporting Sen. Hillary Clinton. "He took a walk every time there was a tough vote in the Illinois state Senate. He took a walk more than 130 times. That's what a shadow boxer does. All the right moves. All the right combinations. All the right footwork. But he never steps into the ring."

"Don't be deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history," said Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee.

Eloquent but empty calls for change seem to be working well enough for Mr. Obama in the battle for the Democratic nomination. But that may be due more to the weaknesses of Sen. Hillary Clinton than to his strengths.

There is no real divide on issues between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, so the primary campaign has focused on personality. His is attractive. Hers is not.

The bumbles and stumbles of Mrs. Clinton and her husband remind us there is a difference between being ruthless in politics and being good at it. Mrs. Clinton's campaign has compounded her flaws as a candidate by blowing through a huge wad of cash to no apparent purpose, failing to organize in caucus states, and by having had no plan to compete beyond Super Tuesday Feb. 5.

With their own race settled, Republicans have been watching the Democratic contest with dread and amusement. The conventional wisdom is that Mrs. Clinton would be the easier candidate to beat in November.

But Republican antipathy to Mrs. Clinton is so great that many hope Mr. Obama will triumph. The exit polls in Wisconsin indicated 9 percent of those who voted in the Democratic primary were Republicans, and they broke 72-28 for Mr. Obama.

After Mr. Obama's landslide in Wisconsin, many pundits measured Mrs. Clinton for her political casket.

"Like water rushing into the Titanic's hull, the forces now flowing hard against the Hillary Clinton campaign are furious and the die is cast," said the Weekly Standard's "Richelieu."

I'm among those who think Mr. Obama will breach the "firewall" Mrs. Clinton is trying to erect in Ohio and Texas on March 4.

But pundits who earlier in this election cycle confidently declared Mr. McCain politically dead and Mrs. Clinton's nomination inevitable should be cautious about burying Hillary now.

To win, the Clintons and their surrogates will have to rough up Mr. Obama the way they did Bill's girlfriends, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky. I doubt this will work, but it might.

In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale turned back Gary Hart, another charismatic young senator renowned for his oratory, by asking, "Where's the beef?"

Most pundits think Mrs. Clinton's lust for power will keep her in the fight until the Democratic convention in late August. But I think that if she loses in Ohio or Texas, she'll withdraw.

If Mr. Obama is ultimately to be the Democratic nominee, it could be just as well for Republicans to have the race settled early. As long as Barack and Hillary battle, journalists can focus on horse race trivia. But if Mrs. Clinton folds her tent and slinks away, journalists will have little to write about except Mr. Obama's thin resume and left-wing voting record.

"I've got news for all the latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing trust fund babies crowding in to hear [Mr. Obama] speak," Mr. Buffenbarger said. "This guy won't last a round against the Republican attack machine."



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