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(photo credit: AP)
When Al Gore tapped Joe Lieberman - then a junior senator from Connecticut - to be his running mate in 2000, it was hailed as a bold move, partly because it was the first time a Jew would be running on a presidential ticket.
Nowadays, presidential campaigns featuring Protestant white males seem to be in the minority. The two top Democratic contenders according to the polls are a woman, Hillary Clinton, and an African-American, Barack Obama. Bill Richardson, trailing in surveys but still credible - and already being touted as a possible vice presidential nominee - is Hispanic.
Though considered less diverse, the Republican field also boasts candidates with varied backgrounds. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, as is a mere 2% of the American public; and Rudy Giuliani, a Catholic, would be the nation's first Italian-American to hold the Oval Office should he win. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had only to change his party affiliation to "independent" to arouse talk of the country's first Jewish president.
Diversity, for better or worse, is a significant factor in the 2008 race. And while some of it is indeed for the good, does that mean the country is ready for its first Jewish commander-in-chief - or female or black one?
Political expert Norman Ornstein of Washington's American Enterprise Institute described the 2008 race as the first to feature a woman and a black candidate with a serious chance at becoming their party's nominee. That reality alone is significant, he said. "It tells you you have a public that's much more ready for it."
He continued, "The fact is that you wouldn't have these serious candidates if there wasn't a widespread [feeling] that an Obama, a Hillary or a Richardson could win."
Ken Goldstein, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said he was struck by the speed at which the presidential field has diversified - essentially since 2004, when the candidates were pretty much all WASPs.
Goldstein speculated that the change resulted from a shift in values and perceptions that creates more acceptance of difference in political leaders. He also pointed to demographic changes making America more diverse, as well as the trickle-up effect of long-term progress in the participation of groups such as women and African Americans in the political system. The fruits of those labors are now blooming in the form of experienced politicians who are ready to run for president.
William Daroff, director of the Washington office of the United Jewish Communities, attributed the shift to diversifying factors such as immigration. "It is a symbol of our maturation as a country that we are less turned off by the other and more willing to look at folks that don't look just like us," Daroff said. "More and more of us don't look like us anymore."
THAT'S SOMETHING the campaigns are keenly aware of, as the crowded fields on both sides try to marshall voters. So far, Hillary has made the clearest play - and has the clearest advantage - with her special status.
Goldstein said the polls show her getting a bump from female voters, and her campaign strategy seeks to exploit that support.
"You can see the strategic decisions of the campaign. She's decided to focus on women â€¦ to win the nomination."
Former White House official Ann Lewis is now a senior adviser on the Clinton campaign, and as such overseas the outreach to women. From Lewis's perspective, "Being a women means you have to pass a higher threshold of credibility," which can be an obstacle. "But once you pass that threshold of credibility, it's an advantage," she continued, because of "the excitement, the interest, the enthusiasm" surrounding an opportunity to vote for a woman. Women, she noted, made up 54 percent of voters in 2004 and could comprise an even higher number next year.
But one Washington political observer suggested that Clinton isn't being helped as much as she could be by her unique gender role.
"For liberals who would feel guilty not supporting the first woman president, their liberal guilt can be assuaged by supporting the first African American who has a shot at being president," he said.
Lewis dismissed the idea, saying such statements were speculation not backed up by data. Either way, it's certainly the case that both Clinton and Obama are competing for dibs on a historic first.
Obama has some natural resonance in the black community, but wants to use his background to press a universal claim: that his upbringing as the son of a Kenyan immigrant, who spent his childhood living and learning abroad, positions him uniquely to be a president of all the people, who can communicate with all the world.
"He [Obama] has said that because of his background, because of his experiences, he has an ability to understand other people and cultures, and an ability to speak to people in other countries which demonstrates respect for them," said Dan Shapiro, the Middle East policy adviser for the campaign. He also notes, "There are voters in both parties who would find it inspiring to be part of electing a candidate who broke a barrier."
And political analysts seem to agree that what would hold Bloomberg back is his third-party status, not his religion.
STILL, IDENTITY politics - like politics in general - is not all heartwarming. While Clinton and Obama have scored precious media attention, much of it positive, for their groundbreaking status, that surrounding Mitt Romney and his Mormon roots has been mostly negative, according to Goldstein. Sizable percentages of Americans tell pollsters they wouldn't vote for a Mormon, making it a more risky status than being black, Jewish or female.
Romney seems to be taking it well, getting in on the diversity act. He told Time magazine, which ran a cover story with an accompanying piece devoted to the "the debate over his Mormon faith," how as a child he dealt with standing out as a Mormon. "I think it's a helpful thing for the development of the character of a young person to be different from his peers. It's a blessing to be different and stand up for that."
But is it a "helpful thing" for the development of a campaign? Especially one like Romney's, which wants to appeal to conservative voters and faces a challenge in the evangelical community, parts of which are highly critical of Mormonism?
Romney's campaign is at pains to portray the race as one concerning the candidate's record, not his religion. "His faith is obviously an important part of his life and who he is," said spokesman Alex Burgos, "but his focus is really discussing the issues that the American public care about."
The campaign of Republican candidate John McCain, who as a white male Episcopalian bears the distinction of being one of few top-tier candidates to fit the traditional presidential mold, pushed a similar message. "If you look at the field, he may not be as diverse," acknowledged spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan. "But he's the most prepared."
Though McCain and Democratic candidate John Edwards are both struggling right now, Goldstein said it has "little to do with the fact that they're white men."
Their backgrounds will help them - or at least not be a liability - as they are for the more diverse candidates, he asserted.
"I don't know if it's 25% of America, or 30%
or 10% or 5% who wouldn't vote for a woman, black or Jew," said Goldstein. "But I know it's not zero percent."
The fallout of a minority or female candidate will come at some point, probably in the general election, he said. "I don't believe we automatically go to a world where suddenly a woman or an African America can win .. or a Jew."
Lewis agrees that the results aren't in yet. For the issue to be settled, she said, "First a woman has to be president."
Ornstein said the situation is precarious enough that - though Clinton's broken ground by being a serious candidate - if she doesn't succeed, it will hurt future female candidates. "If a woman nominee loses, it will still make it harder the next time."
On the other hand, Goldstein pointed out that elections don't happen in a vacuum, as voters are always choosing between two candidates with negative and positive traits.
"You get to run against other people," he said. "It's not just going to be Michael Bloomberg, Jew, running against perfect American, whatever that means."