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Behind the U.S. presidential race

No doubt some of the key issues of the U.S. presidential campaign that will come to light as Super Tuesday approaches are the economy, health care, Iraq, and immigration; but other issues go even deeper into the American psyche, tugging at the very fabric of U.S. society. Just below the surface of the campaign lay critical issues that many prefer not to discuss candidly. These are race, gender, money and character assassination.

The race and gender issues are not so much about sympathy for Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama's viability. These are code words for the real question. Will substantial numbers of Americans vote for a woman or a black man, or vote their prejudices? The public opinion polls say most Americans believe that the country is ready for a black or a woman president — but American behavior in the voting booth could well turn out to be much different from behavior in public.

The huge gap between poll predictions and the voting results in New Hampshire suggest that race will be a far more important factor in this election than voters and pundits are willing to admit. A whole series of polls nearly 20 percent off the mark cannot be accounted for only by women's last minute sympathy for Hillary. More likely, many voters told a pollster they would vote for Obama — because Iowa made him look like a charismatic winner — but in the privacy of a secret ballot, they could not bring themselves to vote for a black man. Most Americans would never admit they are racists, and usually avoid public behaviors that would have them labeled as such. Iowa was a public vote. Public behavior prevailed. Obama won. New Hampshire was a secret ballot. Obama lost. Do not underrate voter hypocrisy in the public polls and prejudice in the secret voting booths in 2008.

Gender might not appear to be such an important factor so far, but that is because the Democrats' choice is essentially between a woman and a black man. The gender issue will become much more important if Hillary wins the nomination. Should she face a centrist, rather macho Republican candidate like McCain, large numbers of voters who would vote for a Democrat now solely because of President Bush are likely to choose the man over the woman, and they might be decisive in the general election.

Money plays a key role in the campaigns. Early primaries show that failing to appear and mount a serious campaign in a state guarantees a poor showing. Most of the low budget candidates already are effectively out of the race. Funding will contribute to dooming Edwards far more than his positions, though he might be able to gain a role at the nominating convention if there is a Clinton-Obama stalemate in the primaries. A meager campaign treasure chest at the outset would have doomed both Huckabee and McCain early on had they not focused all their efforts on a single state — Iowa for Huckabee and New Hampshire for McCain — where they appealed to enough voters to pull off victories against a field of Republican hopefuls with major liabilities. By Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney's ability to finance his own campaign could turn the Republican contest on its head.

The candidate that creates the appearance of occupying the center of the U.S. political spectrum wins, which explains why Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was such an effective political slogan even if it was a lie. This truth makes primaries particularly difficult for both parties, because the activist base of each is not at the center. For the Republicans, it has increasingly been the religious far right, and the democratic base is left of center. Without gestures toward key party constituencies in the primaries, the nomination can't be won. This takes a great deal of organization, advertising, and appearances with the voters. That requires a huge amount of money to win the adult equivalent of the high school popularity contest.

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