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Thursday, October 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Dems turn their weary eyes to the promise of a fresh face

Enough of Election 2006. Let's talk about Election 2008 and Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois who is, remarkably, a Democrat with a spark.

Obama, in town today for a sold-out book-tour speech at Benaroya Hall, says he might run for president in 2008. You can practically see the Democrats jumping for joy in their pastel Crocs, hear the din as they stomp excitedly on their recyclable cans and cartons.

A party trying to find new ideas needs a charismatic leader to light a match. Despite his considerable inexperience, Barack may be just that individual — for president or vice president in 2008.

I don't know enough about him to come out and say, yes, Obama for president in 2008, but this fascinating senator with amazing communication skills and evenhandedness may lead the Democrats out of their doldrums.

My own personal rule for 2008 is No Hillary. It's not that I completely dislike Hillary Clinton. I admire some of her work as a New York senator.

But no candidate so polarizing can help this party. Hillary inspires the wrath of men — obviously, she threatens some of them. More, she is so politically calculating she ends up offering too many nondescript platitudes.

And anyone who makes 40 percent of voters intensely angry before saying "Good morning" should not be allowed to ruin Democrats' chances. The 2008 election is too important to be driven by the force of her personality or ego.

Interestingly, more women than men I talk to realize the shortsightedness of the rush to nominate Hillary. If there is going to be a woman as president, and there ought to be, many of us would rather see someone with an enormous opportunity to win. You only get so many chances. Do it right.

Which leads easily back to the man Slate magazine refers to as Obamanator. He's so, seemingly, authentic. He offers the opposite of the sound bite. He is humble in tone and personal story. And his crowds are so jazzed they are reminiscent of Beatlemania.

After so many years of Republican rule, it is time for Democrats to take over and see if they can do a better job. But which candidate and for what reason?

Former Vice President Al Gore is still a very viable candidate. Gore can argue credibly that if he had been elected in 2000, we might still have a few friends in the world, which, of course, we now don't. It is tough to argue for Obama and against Gore, who has tons of experience as vice president and senator. But we are a nation of short attention spans and fickle preferences.

We are always hunting for the next new big thing. Obama gets people fired up. Like consumers of canned soup, voters are always eager for the newest product. So ... Obama, a man who transcends the racial divide with a seamless connection to people of all races. His father is from Kenya; his mother is white and from Kansas.

"White people are just thrilled when a prominent black person comes along and doesn't rub their noses in racial guilt," says essayist Shelby Steele in Time. "White people just go crazy over people like that."

Obama can speak and articulate complicated, thoughtful ideas.

None of that really adds up to the executive experience often required of a president. This man has served less than one full term in the Senate and eight years in the Illinois state Senate.

Obama's answer to the experience — or lack of it — question has a ring of truth to it:

"I'm not sure anyone is ready to be president before they're president," he said on last Sunday's "Meet the Press." "You know, ultimately, I trust the judgment of the American people that in any election, they sort it through."

Clearly, the Obama phenomenon flows from our desperate need for strong leadership.

Politicians are like Rorschach tests. We glom onto them and pour images of our desires into their résumés and see things that may or may not be there.

In all honesty, a lot of people are doing that with Obama. They — we — are looking for a leader who can take us from this low moment in American politics to something new and different and altogether more promising.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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