WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic Barack Obama is the “Yes We Can” candidate of the 2008 presidential race, an Elvis-like presence riding a wave of popular enthusiasm unseen in U.S. politics in many years.
By contrast, rival Hillary Clinton is the policy wonk who says she has the solutions to what ails America, and she frequently lists them.
In an election season in which the differences between the Democratic candidates on policy are not all that big, personalities are magnified, and so far Obama is outshining Clinton even as she complains his soaring rhetoric amounts to not much more than hot air.
“One is an inspirational speaker and the other is more of a technician,” said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy. “Obama doesn’t tell you how to make the sausage. He tells you to eat the sausage because it’s good for you.”
Obama, a first-term Illinois senator who would be America’s first black president, is threatening to swamp Clinton, the New York senator with the political pedigree who had long been the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Popular Hollywood actors and musicians have made a Web video glorifying his stump speech, singing “Yes We Can” as he delivers his lines. Liberals and moderates are gushing over him.
Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon said Obama is sweeping Americans off their feet.
“It’s this incredibly moving speech about how it’s time for Americans to turn inward and fix America’s problems. You listen to it and you say ‘Yes.’ Not that what’s coming out of her mouth isn’t solid, it just doesn’t have the same emotional connection that we’re feeling with him,” she said.
The rap on Obama is that he lacks specifics with all the high-flying speeches. Yes we can do what, exactly?
“Obama has been able to stay at a very abstract level,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
If he wins the nomination, “his challenge would be to keep that hope and optimism and enthusiasm alive as he is forced to deal with the specifics or challenged on his Senate votes in the past. It’ll be a different kind of campaign,” Black said.
Democrats are aware that Obama has some challenges ahead when Republicans start looking at his voting record in the Senate and examining his level of experience.
“I don’t think the country is aware yet of how big a liberal he is,” said Chadderdon. “I don’t know what the moderates will do when they find it out.”
Republicans are already taking his measure, in the event he is the Democrats’ choice to face likely Republican opponent John McCain in the November election.
In endorsing McCain on Thursday, former Republican candidate Mitt Romney said McCain was the real thing as opposed to Democrats who “are very skilled at striking heroic poses.”
The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joked about all the hero worship surrounding Obama in remarks to reporters at annual congressional dinner on Wednesday.
“But now they’re down to just two candidates: a New York senator who was born in Illinois, and a senator from Illinois who was apparently born in a manger,” said McConnell.
Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said Clinton is faced with a task that is tough for women in politics to deal with — how far to go in showing emotion.
“If she’s too soft and empathetic, ‘She’s not tough enough for the job.’ If she acts tough, then ‘She’s cold and calculating,’” Fowler said.
Stephen Hess, a political science professor at George Washington University, said Obama has tapped into a desire for change among Americans tired of the partisan battles and gridlock that have seized Washington.
And he is doing it with oratory skills of the type seen only rarely in American presidential politics: Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and at times, Bill Clinton.
“What he’s got somehow, maybe intuitively, maybe otherwise, is a real sense of what the public need is,” he said.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/
Editing by Eric Walsh