Image: Barack Obama campaigns
Rick Bowmer  /  AP
Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., greet supporters following his address at a Wisconsin rally in this Feb. 18 file photo.
updated 3/15/2008 5:08:54 PM ET 2008-03-15T21:08:54

Something happened to the feel-good, way-cool Democratic presidential contest in the months since a woman and a black man began their path-breaking race for the White House.

By the millions, black voters voted for the black candidate and women voted for the woman. White men seemed torn, by the millions.

Sen. Barack Obama has broken historic barriers, especially among the young, as the first black candidate with a serious chance at the presidency. Voters who might ordinarily balk at a female president have backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in her pioneering effort.

Those gains have not been enough to erase divisions by race, a task perhaps beyond any mortal and any one election, nor lesser ones between the sexes.

And when the campaign moves beyond Democrats, the party of diversity, and into the general election, it's questionable how much room is left for such progress.

Voters consider race, sex
A significant minority of voters in Democratic contests have considered the race or sex of the candidates important — about one in five in each case. That's according to surveys of voters in about two dozen states across the country on and since Super Tuesday.

Whether clumsy, coarse or calculating, remarks by party stalwarts or hangers-on have brought race repeatedly into the discomfort zone, which is easy to do, suggesting a post-racial political consciousness is for a more distant future.

Weeks before Geraldine Ferraro argued that the color of Obama's skin gave him an edge, fellow Clinton supporter Ed Rendell appeared to argue the opposite. The Pennsylvania governor, an important figure in the big April 22 primary, said "there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American."

On the defensive about that, he added Clinton "has the same handicap" because some voters won't vote for a woman.

By that accounting, backed by evidence in exit polls, polarized politics is still ingrained, taking bites out of "Yes we can" unity.

Early alliances change
Clinton was an early crossover figure in one sense — blacks preferred her over Obama last year, while Obama was the pick of upper income whites.

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But that changed after the Illinois senator scored a big win in mostly-white Iowa, and his movement was born.

In the South Carolina primary and beyond, blacks have powered his victories in states where they live in large numbers, joined by the young of any race — and by white men in varying degrees.

Women are credited with reviving Clinton's campaign in New Hampshire and helping to drive her wins in Texas and Ohio.

David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank, says Clinton probably lost more black support than she gained among whites when supporters such as her husband began dropping subtle race cards into the debate.

"It has shifted the black vote entirely into Obama's camp," he said, and so far without costing him equivalent white support. He estimated Clinton could have held on to a third of black votes absent tactics that he said drove them away. As it is, he's beaten her 83-15 percent among black voters, according to exit polls for The Associated Press.

That's not to say most of her supporters necessarily have a problem with a black candidate, he said.

"White women are supporting Hillary because she's a woman," he said. "It's not because Obama is black." She's held a 59-36 percent advantage among white women.

Clinton wins white vote
Racial divisions have been most evident in the South, although not exclusive to it.

A quarter of white voters in Mississippi's Democratic primary said race was important in their choices Tuesday, and they voted heavily for Clinton. Thirty-seven percent of blacks said race was important, and nearly all voted for Obama.

In Ohio, 18 percent of white voters said race was important to their vote. Among them, 76 percent backed Clinton. She won by 16 points among women in Ohio and 29 points among whites.

In all, Clinton is winning the majority of white votes in Democratic primaries in which both candidates competed.

Obama has performed best among whites in liberal Vermont and his home state of Illinois, although he has also edged Clinton in the white vote in Wisconsin, Virginia, Utah and New Mexico.

All told, voter surveys suggest that Clinton ends up with more votes because she's a woman than Obama nets because he's black.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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