November 2, 2008

WASHINGTON – On Tuesday night, history will walk across the American stage, no matter who wins.

The United States will send to the White House either the first woman vice president in Republican Sarah Palin, or the first black president in Democrat Barack Obama, now leading in the national polls.

All presidential elections make history but this will be a genuine gather-the-kids-around-the-TV sort of night, a nation of some 300 million people taking a collective step to do something never done before in this country.

And in a year when 18 million people also hoped for the first woman president in Hillary Rodham Clinton, many experts believe Tuesday’s results will mark a step from which the country will never look back, particularly if Obama can break the racial barrier to the presidency.

“Will we ever go back to a year when all four candidates are white males?” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to that.”

Obama’s rise – from a little-known Illinois senator but two years ago to the cusp of the presidency – surprises some civil-rights historians. Just 47 years old, a self-described “tall, skinny guy with big ears and a funny name,” Obama could become the president of a country where “Whites Only” signs were found in the South just 45 years ago.

“Barack Obama’s election, should it come to that, really does suggest a significant cultural transformation in the way that we Americans, black and white and brown, perceive color, perceive race, perceive the meaning of African-Americans,” said Clement Alexander Price, a history professor at Rutgers University, Newark. “It’s an indication that the republic continues to evolve in rather marvelous ways.”

In addition to mobilizing African-American turnout, Obama also has tapped an army of young voters at a time when the nation is growing more diverse, heading toward 2042 when the Census Bureau projects non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority of Americans. Yet Obama’s campaign never stressed a race-based appeal – as some pioneering black politicians like Jesse Jackson did – and that made it easier for him to connect with white voters.

“If you could pigeonhole him as the ‘black candidate’, then he would never break out and reach white audiences,” said Manning Marable, a professor of history and African-American studies at Columbia University. “So for him to break out of that, he had to put forward solutions that met the needs of a lot of racial and class groups, and he had to focus with a laserlike determination on speaking to the middle class.”

Obama’s breakthrough somewhat overshadowed Palin’s achievement as the first Republican woman on a national ticket – and only the second to be a vice-presidential nominee of either major party.

If elected alongside John McCain, Palin would immediately break the second-highest glass ceiling left in American society – and be the president-in-waiting to the 72-year-old McCain. At age 44, she appears certain to be a force on the national scene, win or lose – as some Republicans say she could be the person to lead the party out of the wilderness should McCain be defeated.

But her candidacy has been deeply controversial. The National Organization for Women criticized Palin as “a woman who opposes women’s rights” because of her staunch anti-abortion views. She came under fire over the campaign’s decision to spend $150,000 on clothes – criticism some of Palin’s defenders have called sexist. More female voters are supporting the Obama- Joe Biden ticket, even with a chance to elect a woman with McCain.

New polls suggest she is the rare vice presidential choice who is actually a drag on the ticket, as sizable numbers of voters question whether she’s qualified, even though she sometimes rallies bigger conservative crowds than her running mate.

“She has completely redefined what it means to be a woman in national politics,” said Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think-tank. “She doesn’t fit the traditional feminist agenda – she’s pro-life, she hunts, she’s a gun advocate. None of those things are on the traditional checklist that left-of-center feminists use when they decide whether you’re a feminist.”

If McCain loses Tuesday, Bernard said, “the Republican party really does need to start over. It’s lost its way, lost its roots, and if you see the crowds that come to see her, maybe she is the person to start putting the pieces back together again.”