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Caryl Rivers Headshot

Of Stanwyck and Show Horses

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The mathematics of who's elite and who's "just folks" in presidential politics is somewhat mysterious. It doesn't correlate with class or income.

FDR, with his long, elegant cigarette holder, his little dog Fala and his aristocratic voice, should have been almost a caricature of upper-classness. But he used that voice in his Fireside Chats to speak directly to people's hearts, and they loved him. Harvard and money didn't seem to hurt JFK, and no politician could work a crowd better than Nelson Rockefeller, whose name was nearly synonymous with money (He probably would have been president if he hadn't dumped his wife and chased after a married woman with five kids -- whom he did later marry.) Ronald Reagan communicated with blue-collar folks so well he has a whole class of them named after him -- the Reagan democrats.

But Adlai Stevenson, darling of upper crust Democrats, never could shake his egghead image and resonate with the lunch-bucket crowd. Tom Dewey was a tough prosecutor, but you couldn't imagine him slugging back a Bud. When Alice Roosevelt Longworth called the ever-dapper Dewey "The little man on the wedding cake," the image stuck. Mike Dukakis, a working class Greek-American who took the subway to the state house, was transformed by right-wing attack squads into an effete liberal who munched on Belgian endives and was soft on crime.

Which brings us to Barack Obama; today, people are asking if he's a show horse who's elegant and thrilling to watch in full stride, but one who's going to wobble in the stretch. Is the little filly chasing him the mudder, the one who will keep going in the wind and the rain and the muck and never take her eye off the finish line?

It seems bizarre that the guy who lived for a time on food stamps, the son of a sometimes struggling single mom, is now being labeled "elite." But his-ill phrased "bitter" comment opened him up to the charge that he can't relate to ordinary blue-collar voters.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has turned herself into Barbara Stanwyck in all those old forties movies, the tough, sassy working-class gal who's got a heart of gold and knows her way around a gat.

You expect Hillary to drill a duck any second. And unlike Dick Cheney, she won't shoot another hunter instead.

This is why the primary race can't be shut down before the competitors round the final turn. Hillary Clinton has had a lot to prove, and she's demonstrated her staying power. Now it's Barack's turn. The magic is gone, but magic always goes, and now it's slog time, and time as well for Barack himself to complete the colors on his portrait. Because he's so new on the political scene, others have been projecting onto him their hopes, dreams and fears. He can't coast on his early lead, because as Red Sox fans know, early leads are worth bupkes in the fall.

It's going to be hard for some Democrats to move away from the dream of Obama to the reality of Obama... The magic was indeed wonderful, while it lasted. That's why, I think, we saw the extraordinary hostility against Hillary when she did what you are supposed to do in a campaign -- throw some punches. Would that same fury have erupted if John Edwards had been her opponent? I doubt it. To some, she became the evil witch trying to destroy the dream child. But you can't win with just a dream. You have to take a punch, and throw it. You have to prove you can go the distance.

Barack Obama has to win this primary race in the homestretch; calling it off too early tarnishes him, it doesn't help him. It hasn't been negative campaigning that's hurt him the most, but his own stumbles. The elite tag came from his own gaffe. But those things happen during campaigns, and candidates recover.

Or maybe they don't.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert says he's puzzled by Obama's "strange reluctance to fight harder for the nomination in public."

In any event, we need to find out if Obama can pull it off. And not worry about John McCain's good poll numbers. Does anyone remember that, seven months ago, Rudy Giuliani looked like the top dog in the republican race?

So let the games continue. And may the best man -- or woman -- triumph.