Image: Obama
Eric Thayer  /  Getty Images
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama greets voters during a campaign stop December 17, 2007 in Le Mars, Iowa.
By
msnbc.com
updated 12/18/2007 4:00:25 PM ET 2007-12-18T21:00:25

Guys who played Harvard basketball with Barack Obama tell me he was a gentlemanly, unselfish teammate; a Magic Johnson passer who set-up others for open looks.

But when I asked the senator last spring about his on-court role model, he cited Allen Iverson – the epitome of in-your-face, slash-to-the-basket play.

In this last quarter of the Iowa Invitational Tournament, Obama is more Iverson than Johnson, but he’ll have to take his game to another level if he hopes to be Democrats’ “Answer.”

Let’s dispel a few myths about the man.

First is the notion that he’s too much of a gentleman for politics.

But consider these facts. His political roots were planted on the South Side of Chicago. The Daley Family backs him. His top advisor is the mustachioed David “The Ax” Axelrod, one of the toughest touts in the business. His campaign was reborn on Oct. 30 in Philadelphia, when he and John Edwards joined forces to label Hillary Clinton – in almost so many words – a corrupt liar. And in just the last few days, Obama has launched a tough direct-mail assault against her health care plan, also accusing Edwards of having done nothing in the Senate in the name of political reform.

So much for Mr. Nice Guy.

Here’s another myth: that he’s gotten a thorough going-over by the national press corps and the political establishment. Not really. For the most part, the treatment has been more hagiography than hit pieces. Maybe it’s that smile, or the inspiring, we-are-the-world story (which he essentially constructed in his own words in a best-selling book) or the fact that most of the media is simply tired of the Clintons.

Rival Democratic campaigns complain bitterly – on background – that he has gotten a comparatively free ride so far in the campaign. Unfortunately for Clinton, Edwards and the other Democrats, there is little they can do about it other than – to use a word – hope. They are reluctant to go after him face-to-face; for fear that the strategy will backfire.

Still, there are legitimate questions, which boil down just one: If nominated, can Barack Obama win?

“Test matchups” seem to say yes. The latest Gallup Poll, for example, shows Obama beating Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney by slightly larger (though statistically inconsequential) margins than those enjoyed by Clinton, the Queen of Electability.

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But Obama rivals dismiss such numbers, arguing that the Republican “swift boaters” will transform him from a paragon of fresh, inclusive amiability and intellectual attainment to a tax-raising, immigrant coddling, anything-goes metropolitan liberal.

That was Bill Clinton’s subtext on “Charlie Rose” the other day when the former president said that Obama’s political future would be a “roll of the dice.” It wasn’t just that he couldn’t handle the job of being president, Clinton implied; it’s that he couldn’t handle the GOP attack machine.

Video: Joke’s on Obama So, what would Obama need to defend? Cocaine, for one, is not a swell topic in a general election campaign, but it’s one Obama would be forced to deal with – not so much because of his own admitted adolescent use of it, but because he has proposed reexamining the draconian federal sentencing guidelines for jailing crack cocaine users and dealers. He’s probably right on the merits, but it’s a hard sell to swing voters in a red states like, say, Ohio. You want to know why Clinton “senior strategist” Mark Penn used the word “cocaine” a lot on “Hardball ” the other night? That’s why.

Then, there’s the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Seeking to outflank Hillary in Philly, Obama called this plan “the right idea.” He cited security concerns – easier tracking of the undocumented – and the need to bring illegals “out of the shadows” for administrative and humanitarian reasons. But when viewed as an isolated matter, voters oppose the licensing idea by a 3-1 margin. (One reason why Hillary and Bill can’t attack directly on this point is that she was for the idea, too, until he was against it.)

Republicans would also pounce on Obama’s plan to lift the cap on the payroll tax for incomes above $97,000. He won the early primary-season skirmish on this point, deriding Clinton’s assertion of that being “middle class.” But selling tax hikes is never easy, and the GOP seems to be in unusual agreement on that one.

Then there’s the issue of Obama’s past, pre-campaign stands on issues, which at one time included a repeal and top-to-bottom rewrite of the first Patriot Act; a ban on hand-guns; opposition to the death penalty and a voting record, however brief, that makes him one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Senate.

And don’t forget about what one rival campaign operative called “asymmetrical” matters. What a slippery euphemism! Let’s translate for this coward. What he meant was: are swing voters really willing to elect an African-American with the middle name of `Hussein’ even if he is smart, charming and credentialed by Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago, the Senate, Oprah Winfrey and Democrats in primaries?

My answer is this two-fold. For one, I think the guy is pretty tough. He’s a fighter. He’s not afraid to take it and drive into the middle of the lane. Take a look the video of his comeback to a Hillary Clinton’s self-righteous cackle in last week’s Des Moines Register debate. As they used to say in the Irish wards, he laid her out in lavender.

Politics is about context and timing, and both factors may be operating in Obama’s favor. Voters want change. They want something new. They distrust, even despise, the powers that be. They want new paradigms, new language and new people for a new 21st century world. In Obama, voters may be asked to consider more “new” than they bargained for. But if he is the only alternative to the status quo next November, they might not just be willing, they might even be eager, to pass him the ball.

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