CLEVELAND – Well, that wasn't much of a debate. Not that I expected it to be. As Democratic presidential hopefuls criss-crossed Ohio last week in search of votes, their respective debate strategies became obvious long before they took the stage.
Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York would attack, throwing all her best
punches to frustrate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. She needed to
land the knock-out punch that would shove him off message and expose
him as a lightweight contender for the job she assumed was
hers for the asking.
Obama needed only to look presidential. And he did. That earned him
bragging rights as winner of the debate. It might also have earned him
a victory in the Ohio primary. Or, at the very least, denied Clinton
the overwhelming win she needs to keep hope
alive in her crumbling campaign.
But even though folks across this state may sense that Clinton's hopes
of becoming president are slip-sliding away, they are still wondering
whether to believe in Obama. Judging from all that I hear, he's
winning them over.
My poker-playing buddy Ken took his 14-year-old daughter and two of her friends to witness Obamamania at Public Hall here last Saturday evening. He came away from the event scratching his head at the crowd that turned out.
Well, at least, one person in that crowd.
For the most part, Ken told me, the audience was an interesting mix of folks. Of the 6,000 people who braved the hawk off Lake Erie to come downtown to hear Obama's pep talk, maybe 60 percent of them were black; mostly they looked to be middle-class families, proud and happy to be a part of history.
Less than half the crowd was white, almost evenly divided between old and young. The largest observable demographic were the few hundred union folks in matching purple T-shirts who had apparently been bused in for the event.
Directly behind Ken, who arrived without VIP tickets and sat in the balcony, was The White Woman.
I guess I should point out here that Ken is a stereotypical, white Obama supporter. You know the type: Well-educated, Saab-driving, suburban homeowner. He reads The New Yorker and listens to Garrison Keillor's 'A Prairie Home Companion' on public radio. I doubt he's ever voted – or ever will — for a Republican. He also has the world's worst poker face, a kind and expressive disposition that reveals whatever is on his mind.
The White Woman appeared to be in her mid 30s. She wore blue jeans and a fashionable blouse. Her hair was dark with reddish highlights. She had three kids – two boys about 6 and 8, and a chatty girl who was about 10 years old. Her husband looked Hispanic; he was definitely much older and didn't say much, except to talk softly with a heavy accent into his cell phone.
She must have seen the expression on Ken's face, so she parked her family in the row immediately behind him. Sure enough, after exchanging pleasantries and when no one else was around to notice, the woman gently tapped Ken on the shoulder and said: "I'm really glad you're here. I sat by you because I'm not comfortable around all these black people."
Ken told me he was shocked. Embarrassed, too. "I mean, here they are at an Obama rally with three kids and she's telling me she's afraid of black people? It was quite startling."
I don't think so.
The White Woman may be a living, breathing, walking human contradiction. But she's also the problem and the promise at the heart of Obama's hope to win in next week's Ohio Democratic primary. She's also the type of voter — new to politics and desperate for change — who floods into cavernous halls to hear Obama speak. And many of them bring their children, too.
Can Obama make The White Woman set aside her discomfort? Will she and others like her vote for this remarkable black man, who draws nearer and nearer to the top job in America, even as the legions of dark-skinned folks around him scares the bejesus out of her?
I'm betting that she will. After all, she ventured into inner city Cleveland to hear him speak. So many white folks say they never come downtown for any reason because there are just too many of "them" for comfort's sake.
But The White Woman's set aside such foolish fear. If only for one night, she craved the promise of something different to believe in. I call that hope.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.