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March 25, 2008

Barack Obama in the Land of Donovan McNabb


The year's last big Democratic primary contest has gotten into full swing here in Pennsylvania, with less than four weeks left in the seven-week sprint that culminates in the April 22 vote. Ads are beginning to run, lawn signs nailed down and the candidates themselves are making regular appearances on the airwaves as well as in person.


Two things must be stated at the outset about the Pennsylvania primary:


1. Hillary Clinton, thanks to demographic advantages, is virtually certain to win, and 2. It likely won't matter, because the number of delegates at stake will be not nearly enough to cut into Barack Obama's sizable lead. Unless Obama amasses a delegate and popular vote lead that is absolutely insurmountable, the election is almost certainly headed for a superdelegate challenge in Denver. Pennsylvania, rather than the be-all-and-end-all that the national media is making it into, is really not all that important.


But the candidates seem to care, which is why one or the other has appeared in Philadelphia seemingly every day of the past three weeks.


Obama's instantly legendary "A More Perfect Union" speech took place in Philly last Tuesday. How apropos that Obama delivered his speech at the National Constitution Center, a building that is abutted, on one side, by Race Street.


Indeed, even before the Jeremiah Wright brouhaha began, race clearly had a part to play in the Pennsylvania primary. Ed Rendell governor of Pennsylvania, former mayor of Philadelphia, former Democratic National Committee chairman and current Hillary supporter made a comment a few weeks ago that rankled many. He stated, in an interview with a Pittsburgh newspaper, that "you've got conservative whites here, and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate."


Rendell's statement was very clearly and indisputably accurate. But in making it he alienated just about every Pennsylvania demographic imaginable. Black voters, as well as Obama supporters of all races, heard the statement as a coded appeal, making "excuses" for whites to avoid voting for Obama. White voters were insulted, thinking they were called racists, while Hillary supporters were irked that they could win the primary on the backs of racists. Conservatives objected to Rendell "injecting race where it doesn't belong," while actual racists were likely upset about being put on the same side as both Hillary Clinton and Ed Rendell.


It's largely thought that even though some rural whites may not grant him their support, Obama would at least gain majorities in Philadelphia, with its large black population. But whether white people in Philly will support Obama is another question entirely. Ever since the Rendell controversy, I've been asking jokingly how white Philadelphia can be ready for a black president, when they're not even ready for a black quarterback?


And indeed, Obama has much in common with the Eagles' oft-embattled quarterback, Donovan McNabb. Both are from, or at least lived for a long time on, the south side of Chicago. Both are constantly enmeshed in controversy, even though there's really nothing controversial about them. Both are considered too black by some people, and not black enough by others. And both are very strongly disliked by Rush Limbaugh.


So on the morning after giving the historic Constitution Center speech, Obama stepped bravely into the breach of the nexus of McNabb opposition: Philadelphia's sports radio station, 610 WIP.


Obama appeared, via phone interview, on Angelo Cataldi's morning show on WIP, for a friendly five-minute phone interview. The move was seen by most as an attempt by Obama to reach out to blue-collar white voters, most of whom have gone for Hillary in the previous primaries; Cataldi's show is Ground Zero for Philadelphia's working-class, rowhouse-dwelling, damn-those-rich-owners sports fans.


Cataldi and Co. actually came across as impressed with the candidate, and didn't even say anything when he appeared to commit a gaffe in calling his grandmother a "typical white person." Some other personalities on the station, however, including popular afternoon host Howard Eskin, seized on this, and dozens of callers were given a chance to share their usual "why you gotta make a racial issue out of everything" argument, while substituting Obama's name for McNabb's.


It's always dangerous to call someone "typically white" or "typically black," although in context the statement made sense. And the fact that something said on the Angelo Cataldi show could have an effect on the presidential election was probably the most unlikely event of the campaign, with the possible exception of Sinbad's involvement.


The vote is set to take place in just four weeks, but the primary is likely a mere warm-up. The general election is right around the corner, with Pennsylvania once again set to play a major role.


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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