POLITICS: To Pick a President 

With Super Tuesday less than a week away, Memphis gets to share in the national suspense.

It was only a couple of weeks back - a startling fact to reflect on in this lightning-like season of -breaking primaries and caucuses. The Republicans of South Carolina, together with some independents in that open-primary state, had just cast their votes for president, giving Arizona senator John McCain a narrow victory over former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

That outcome continued the resurrection of the old warrior's candidacy and gave him the opportunity, no matter what happened in the intervening Florida primary this week, to hold off the persistent and well-heeled ex-governor of Massachusetts, sometime moderate, sometime conservative Mitt Romney, and to seal the deal for the GOP presidential nomination in the 22 states, including Tennessee, that are set to hold primaries on Tuesday, February 5th.

The next day, January 20th, was a Sunday, and another presidential aspirant who keenly needed the breath of new life for his candidacy returned to the state of his birth to begin one of his patented round-the-clock campaign tours, the kind that few others had the stamina to pursue.

This was John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina and the Democrats' vice-presidential nominee of four years ago. Edwards had finished second in the Iowa caucuses, actually edging out the heavy favorite, Hillary Clinton, there and coming in second behind the surprise winner and ipso-facto man of destiny, Barack Obama.

Edwards in South Carolina - JB
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  • Edwards in South Carolina

Edwards had fallen back to a weak third five days later in the New Hampshire primary, though, and, given the Blitzkrieg pace of the 2008 primary calendar, it had begun to seem that his hopes for the presidency and for his unprecedentedly populist platform could now be reckoned in half-life terms.

Looking around at several score townsfolk who had crowded into Stephen W.'s Bistro on Main Street in mid-state Newberry, not far from Edwards' birthplace in nearby Seneca, sharing space with a sizeable media contingent and awaiting the candidate's pending arrival at high noon, it was not hard to see what his main problem was.

The locals here were all white folks, and while their presence here gave credibility to the oft-proposed theory that Edwards was the most saleable Democrat to white Southerners in a general election, the problem remained that it was not white Southerners who counted most toward a Democratic nomination in today's highly diversified party.

Still and all, it was refreshing to listen to a retired construction executive named Otis Salem give his reasons for favoring Edwards.

"I'm an old man, so I've already voted. I voted for him last Saturday," said Salem. Why? "He best represents what I think the gospels teach. He stands for the disadvantaged, and I think that's exactly what the gospels say." What about the Republican evangelic, Huckabee? "I think he misses the essence of the gospel," said Salem, explaining,"I'm pro-life in every way you can imagine. You don't put guns in the cribs, for example." But he sighed in self-recognition. "I'm a rarity."

Was he worried that Edwards had fallen too far behind to catch up? "That doesn't matter. You have to do what you think is right," Salem said. And just about then the candidate's bus arrived, and, after a little commotion outside, there he was, John Edwards, coming through the glass door in his Sunday blue suit and shaking hands with the faithful.

He would speak to the crowd with brevity but intensity, ladling out his populist pledges rapid-fire, almost like a catechism:

New jobs. Health care. Get rid of the carbon-based economy, get on a green economy. Watched my father go to the mills every day for 36 years. Trade policy that works for this country. Get investment capital into towns and communities like this.
National broadband policy. A candidate of the people. Stand up for the middle class. Fighting to end poverty. Glad to meet with y'all on this Sunday afternoon. Thank you all.

And after handshaking his way out, the same way he came in, Edwards was gone, ready to do the same thing all over again in dozens of other South Carolina towns.

It would not avail. South Carolina would see another third-place finish, 18 percent of the vote behind Obama's 55 and Clinton's 27.

AND SO IT WAS THAT EDWARDS ADEPTS like Kate Mauldin, an officer in the College Democrats and history major at the University of Memphis, looked into the future and, with the Super Tuesday vote of February 5th drawing ever nearer, saw her choices changing and narrowing.

She explained her presence at last week's local headquarters opening for the Clinton campaign this way: "I came out of the gate a major John Edwards supporter, and I feel, frankly, it was just be throwing my vote away to go that way."

So why Clinton? Mauldin said she, like almost everyone else, had found Barack "impressive" but, like many others as well, wondered if the first-term Illinois senator's campaign for the presidency wasn't somehow "presumptuous."

The clincher, though, was a reading of Senator Obama's book, Dreams from My Father, which convinced her that he senator was a self-absorbed type who would become "another president who would have trouble admitting mistakes," and "that's the last thing we need after George W. Bush."

Mauldin's reasoning was idiosyncratic, perhaps, but her respect for Clinton's experience and her comfort level with the known quantity that was Hillary Clinton was not all that far from the thinking of Clinton's other local supporters, many of them longstanding activists like the three local members of the New York senator's Tennessee steering committee: state party secretary Gale Jones Carson, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, and state Senator Beverly Marrero.

click to enlarge A button being sported these days by Clinton backers - JB
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  • A button being sported these days by Clinton backers

Carson and Chism were well-known member of the local Democratic faction associated with Mayor Willie Herenton, and they were now working in close harmony with the likes of David Cocke and David Upton, members of the sometimes bitterly opposed Ford faction.

Clinton, both through her own established persona and as the spouse of the reigning Democratic eminence, ex-president Bill Clinton, could definitely connect such dots - one reason why even the wipeout in South Carolina did not dispel her chances on Super Tuesday and afterwards.

As was well known, the former First Lady still had beaucoup backup in the way of state organization, as well as a more-than-formidable campaign war chest. And, as her surprise comeback victory in New Hampshire had demonstrated, she had something else - a possible reserve of support among women voters.

Former city council member Carol Chumney spoke to that aspect of things at a Clinton-campaign press conference on Monday of this week.

Recalling her own frustrated ambition to become the first woman mayor of Memphis in the 2007 city elections, Chumney said: "The truth is, there are some who will support any man over electing a woman as executive, because the change will affect every single family and the way men and women relater to each other, both in the workplace and at home."

Women voters owed it "to our ancestors, but also to the young girls of this country" to help elect Clinton, Chumney said.

But, even in that moment of steadfast exhortation for Hillary Clinton, there was an element of uncertainty. Mayor Herenton, so recently victorious over Chumney in a bitter mayoral fight, had been billed as a co-endorser at the Monday ceremony, but turned out, for whatever good reason, to be a no-show.

"Commitments elsewhere," said former mayoral spokesperson Carson, who spoke for Herenton and reaffirmed his support for the cause. Whatever. In any case, the promised joint public pledge to Clinton by 2007's Odd Couple did not materialize.

ONE THING THAT CLINTON HAD GOING FOR HER, at least in Tennessee, was that she had beat rival Obama to the hustings here, making it clear that she regarded the Volunteer State in the way Tennesseans themselves like to see it, as a bellwether state.

Even as South Carolinians were giving her a resounding No on Saturday night in a count that was still proceeding, Senator Clinton was appearing at a rally at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

There was, to be sure, a certain irony in the affair. There were two odd things about presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's appearance at Tennessee State University in Nashville Saturday night. Early in the event, Clinton looked into the filled rafters of the school gymnasium and offered a hearty verbal thank-you to the "students of Tennessee State University" for welcoming her and being on hand.

The fact was, however, that in the sea of thousands, both upstairs where she was looking and in the dense seated rows down the floor, the number of bona fide students at the historically black college - or of African Americans of any kind -- was almost infinitesimal.

Given that this first of two planned Tennessee stops before Super Tuesday - the other was at Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis on Sunday --- had surely been scheduled to rekindle her (and her husband's) long-established standing among African Americans, and that Barack Obama, almost despite himself, had become a new black icon, the ratio of whites to blacks in her Nashville crowd -- 20-to-one, at minimum - could not be regarded as fully reassuring to Clinton.

Another odd circumstance was Clinton's response, late in her extended Q-and-A session with the crowd in Nashville, to a point-blank question about the devastating two-to-one trouncing she'd just experienced in South Carolina.

After a perceptible pause, she began awkwardly: "I was honored to run in South Carolina... and it was very close...." What came after that startling denial of reality was a series of stated resolves about keeping on keeping on, mixed with hopeful platitudes aimed at the larger Democratic constituency.

One issue is that, unlike her husband, who can famously glad-hand, orate, small-talk, and bond away with people indefinitely, Senator Clinton has a tendency to wilt in he course of a prolonged personal appearance, and, however warm and personal her beginnings, begin to sound mechanical and repetitious.

She had got to that stage at Tennessee State when she experienced a brief revival. Asked what her plans might be for husband Bill, she answered that he might well take on the task of straightening out the country's wounded relations with the rest of the world.

Either because the crowd agreed on the appropriateness of the assignment or because they merely wanted to applaud an explicit mention of the ex-president, a resounding cheer went up.

That circumstance was a reminder of the growing ambiguity surrounding the Clinton campaign. Whether fairly or not - and there were good arguments either way - former President Clinton, and to a lesser extent the senator herself, had been accused of subtly introducing reminders of Obama's race into the campaign.

It was surely wrong to suggest that there was a racial motive in Bill Clinton's use of the term "fairy tale" to describe Obama's claim to have consistently opposed the Iraq War. But the former president's pointed comparison of Obama to Jesse Jackson, who had also won a primary in South Carolina once, was something else.

click to enlarge Hillary in the pulpit at Monumental Baptist - JB
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  • Hillary in the pulpit at Monumental Baptist

All that was on the back burner for her Sunday appearance at Monumental Baptist. Speaking from the pulpit, Senator Clinton demonstrated again a personal touch that rarely comes through via the electronic medium, though a glimpse of it on TV a day or so before the New Hampshire vote had, by general consensus, done her much good there.

Clinton regaled the mixed congregation of parishioners and media with a tale of representing the United States in the '90s at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa, describing how she kept bouncing from group to group in an effort to avoid, at State Department request, the indignity of being photographed with the ever-approaching Fidel Castro.

And she gave her own tribute the honor of Martin Luther King - though this may have been overshadowed by the powerful oration that followed from the church's pastor, the Rev. Billy Kyles, who had been with Dr. King at the moment of his assassination and, in the presence of the large media contingent shadowing Clinton, may have felt compelled to render his most evocative account of that fact ever.

IT REMAINS UNCERTAIN TO WHAT DEGREE Hillary Clinton and husband Bill still retain the loyalties that for so long had bound America's black population to them, though Super Tuesday will undoubtedly provide something of an answer to that.

click to enlarge Obama on a Nashville stop last year - JB
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  • Obama on a Nashville stop last year

What is a fact is that the Obama has already begun to harvest some notable apostates from the Clinton cause. And, already used to being likened to the figure of John F. Kennedy, the Illinois senator was publicly embraced and endorsed by three prominent Kennedys this week - daughter Caroline; nephew Patrick a Rhode Island congressman now; and the reigning patriarch of the one Democratic family that can compete with and likely outweigh the Clinton clan, Senator Ted Kennedy.

And whether the Clintons did it through purposeful mischief, or Obama did it himself through his stepped-up mentions of Dr. King, beginning in earnest in New Hampshire, or it is a phenomenon that would happened anyhow, one important simulacrum is now virtually complete. If is the ripening bond between candidate Obama and black aspirations and between him and a black electorate that will count for much in the South and in the cities of the rest of the nation

This is one of the ironies of a campaign year rich in them. Obama, son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother, had campaigned for almost a year and entered the primary season without much emphasis on his racial identity.

That was then, however. This is now, after the opening of local Obama headquarters in the Eastgate Center two weeks ago drew a crowd that represented the far corners of Memphis' African-American community. Clinton supporters concede privately that the Illinois senator will capture Memphis' primary vote on a tide of black votes and hope that results in Middle and East Tennessee can offset them.

Whether or not that happens will be determined on February 5th, as will the likelihood of a protracted struggle that could continue all the way to late August when the meet in convention in Denver.

Though with the dropout of homestate favorite Fred Thompson and the perceptible fading of former Arkansas governor Huckabee's chances, the Republican drama in Tennessee has been spiked somewhat, even that - a mano-a-mano now between McCain and Romney - may generate suspense into the summer.

In any case, Memphis and Tennessee are for once smack dab in the middle of the decision-making process for a presidential contest that is still very much up in the air and is:

To Be Continued.

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