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Identity Crisis 

Stakes are high in the Pennsylvania primary

There was something missing from Hillary Clinton's appearance in Oakland on March 14. Denunciations of "oil men in the White House"? Check. Promises to make health care and college affordable for working families? Check. An appreciative audience that represents the Democratic Party's diversity?

Well, not so much.

With the exception of a handful of strategically placed African Americans in the high-visibility seats behind Clinton, it was almost impossible to spot a black voter in the crowd. It almost could have been Mike Huckabee up there.

It seems almost counterrevolutionary to point these things out. Clinton's rival, Barack Obama, has earned front-runner status in no small part because he urges voters to think outside such categories. When he first came to western Pennsylvania, for example, he went not to a majority-black city neighborhood, but to Beaver County -- a bastion of Reagan Democrats. (Monaca, where Obama made his March 17 appearance, is 97 percent white, making the town about as diverse as Clinton's rally was.)

And evidence abounds for how arbitrary categories like "soccer mom" and "NASCAR dad" can be. I know urban gays and Reagan Democrats who are both comfortable with Clinton, even though they aren't comfortable with each other. Obama, meanwhile, appeals to both blacks and college-educated affluent whites. (If Obama's local backers -- a heavy mix of African Americans and East End progressives -- could get behind a mayoral candidate in 2009, the status quo around here would really have something to worry about.)

But Obama's obvious connection to black voters has, increasingly, been matched by weakness among whites. Poll after poll suggests a growing racial gap in support for the two candidates. And Pennsylvania's primary will be the first referendum on the candidates since we began hearing excerpts of sermons by Jeremiah Wright, the minister who presided at Obama's Chicago church and helped advise his campaign.

Wright's remarks -- most notably his denunciation that God should damn, rather than bless, America for its racial legacy -- worry me. Not because I actually think Wright, or Obama, hate America. But because this is potentially a Roveian moment here.

Just as Karl Rove trampled all over Sen. John Kerry's biggest perceived strength -- his record of service in the Vietnam War -- in 2004, we could be seeing the beginning of an assault on Obama's biggest strength: his ability to address racial issues by suggesting we can all share a post-racist future. It's a gift Martin Luther King shared as well ... but in the hands of Rush Limbaugh and the rest, Wright's remarks threaten to erase the memory of MLK, and remake Obama into an Al Sharpton-by-proxy.

As I write this, Obama is speaking in Philadelphia about the Wright debacle. According to the prepared speech, Obama will not just try to put some of Wright's remarks in context, but to address the fears they inspire among whites. "Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel they have been particularly privileged by their race," Obama's speech reads. As opportunities dwindle, "They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away. ... [T]o wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide."

What Obama says is less important than how Pennsylvania responds. We'll be the laboratory to determine whether voters, whatever their background, can resist the sort of politics they claim to hate. If support for Obama plummets between now and April 22, if the racial divide widens, it will be a bad sign -- and not just for Obama. If Pennsylvania proves the Roveian machinery still works, it will be used to steamroll the Democratic nominee, whoever that is.

The smart money says Clinton will win the Pennsylvania primary -- the only mystery is over the size of the margin. But to me, who wins on April 22 will be less important than why. The outcome of the battle will be less important than how it is waged.

Can we get past guilt-by-association attacks? Can we get past the gilt-by-association defense, where we back candidates because of some identity we think we have in common? Could we, for once, have single-issue voters whose single issue was, say, health care?

I'm not naïve enough to believe the answer is "yes." I'm just realistic enough to think we're headed for disaster if the answer is "no."

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