After Iowa and New Hampshire, a survey of the surviving candidates

    Americans are divided, or to put it with Obama-like positivity, hopefully ambivalent. They know, as Mitt Romney has been parroting of late, that Washington is broken. But they are not sure how to fix it.

    The mantra has become “change” — something you never thought you would hear coming out of Fred Thompson’s mouth. While change has become a talking point of each candidate’s campaign, Americans still have very different choices when it comes to picking their next president.

    Like the American public, both the Republican and Democratic parties are fractured, with no clear vision or candidate for ’08. The most recent national polls show modest leads for Clinton and McCain, who are pursued closely by several other front runners. If the overflowing Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are good indicators, Americans are wildly enthusiastic about picking a candidate.

    They just don’t know whom to pick.

    The Republicans have a serious challenge ahead of them if they want to keep the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: They need a big-tent nominee to unite the conservative base while incorporating moderates.

    Fred Thompson inspires neither Republicans nor Democrats. He’s more a lackluster Reagan reincarnate than a candidate.

    Evangelical America, whose political unity and zeal give it enormous (yet waning) power to choose the Republican nominee, is uneasy about the possibility of a Mormon or twice-divorced president.

    Moderates who lean right but are tired of aggressive foreign policies are put off by a former mayor who can’t finish a thought without mentioning Sept. 11 and calling for an American jihad against “Islamo-fascism.” This all plays into the pious hands of Mike Huckabee, who, to his credit, has stayed mostly above the fray. But Huckabee’s campaign has its own shortcomings — extreme positions on abortion and gay rights — and probably wouldn’t have much of a shot in a national election.

    If Huckabee is the candidate who most unites the conservative base, then John McCain is the experienced, centrist choice who might actually have a shot come November.

    On the other hand, McCain’s participation in the bickering and negativity that has seeped into the Republican debates and campaigning bogs down the divided party. My favorite is McCain’s taking seriously the question, “How do we beat the bitch?”

    The Democratic party is similarly ambivalent — not so much in their judgment of the issues (each candidate wants to end the war, create universal health care of some sort, etc.) but about their candidates’ image and style.

    John Edwards’ passionate rhetoric for the underdog, charm and eloquence all bode well for him. But his “son of a mill worker” narrative is getting boring, his eminent debate skills can be intimidating (not unifying) to voters, and he’s made serious gaffs as a senator.

    Barack Obama is tapping into a rhetorical ability that is perhaps unrivaled in recent decades of American politics (reminiscent of JFK). His message of hope is inspired and, so far, successful.

    But Hillary Clinton effectively called into question Obama’s judgment, especially on the Iraq War. Clinton frames Obama’s message of hopeful idealism as naiveté.

    Instead of coming out with attack ads that have typified some of the Republican campaigns (cough: Romney), Clinton subtly demeans her Democratic opponents with implicit criticism that often comes from an aide or her husband. Bill Clinton recently referred to Obama’s claim that he was the only one with the foresight to oppose the Iraq War from the beginning as the “biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

    Hillary Clinton has run an old-school campaign, and the Clinton duo will be a formidable opponent to any challenger in the primary or national election. But there is something a tad ironic about the folks who brought us the ingenious “The Man From Hope” advertising strategy during Bill’s 1992 campaign, now lamenting that Obama’s idealism might give Americans false optimism.

    Hillary’s lamenting is also a bad tactic: It allows Obama and Edwards to characterize the Clinton campaign, which is admittedly funded by powerful Washington lobbyists and political action committees, as more about the status quo than real change.

    At this point the two major parties are rudderless while the American people excitedly (yet ambivalently) think about new leadership for the White House. For many Americans, this moment feels like a watershed: Out of the political apathy and gridlock, a new generation of voters has emerged to elect a new sort of post-partisan president.

    But it’s only January. If anything is true in American politics, it’s that anything can happen. So, for now, here’s to hoping.


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