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After Florida's shabby treatment by the Democratic presidential candidates, you could not blame voters if they decided to sit out the state's Jan. 29 primary. However, this contest is too important to pass on. Florida Democrats face a historic choice, one they will tell their children and grandchildren about some day. Even though the national party has stripped the state of its delegates as punishment for moving up its primary, our votes cannot be denied. They will help determine whether the 2008 Democratic nominee will be an African-American or a woman. Either would be a first.
No wonder many voters are torn, wishing they didn't have to choose one over the other. It is a close call, but as much as we admire Hillary Clinton, we recommend Barack Obama for president in this primary vote. (John Edwards is still actively campaigning.)
Clinton, of course, is the safer choice, largely because she has been in the national eye for 16 years. If anything, we may know too much about her. She bills herself as the candidate of competence and experience who is "ready to lead from day one." However, like many voters who have cast ballots so far, we find Obama to be a more promising choice and a more inspiring voice in these troubled times. His message of hope and change has resonated with voters, including independents and young people. He speaks of the kind of change many Americans yearn for in their politics and their government - not just turning the page on George W. Bush's presidency but changing something more fundamental in Washington.
What separates these two candidates are not the issues, where their differences are minimal, but the values and vision they would bring to the presidency and the kind of political character they have displayed so far.
In Clinton, we see the past; in Obama, we see a fresh start. Clinton is a divisive political figure; Obama's appeal transcends racial and party lines. She exudes competence; he radiates optimism. She came to the campaign with a sense of entitlement; he came to it with a sense of possibilities. She can be evasive, even misleading; he can be refreshingly candid about his own shortcomings and his political mistakes. She represents business as usual in politics; he at least offers the hope of something better.
We should keep our feet on the ground and not get swept away by unrealistic expectations for Obama, either as a candidate or as a president. Could a senator with a down-the-line liberal voting record find common ground with conservative Republicans? Does he have the political courage to stand up to any of his party's key interest groups? We need to hear less rhetoric about change and more specifics on exactly what changes Obama has in mind and how he would bring them about.
Real change can be disruptive and painful. There is one change, however, that would be neither. After almost 20 years of having a Bush or a Clinton in the White House, it may be that many Americans are ready for a fresh face in the Oval Office. Does the country really want to extend the Bush-Clinton rotation to 28 years? That is not a throw-away question.
Contrary to what some say, tone does matter, sometimes as much as substance. Floridians have only to look to Tallahassee to see how one political leader can make a difference. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist has brought civility to the political debate in the state capital and is practicing the kind of postpartisan leadership that Obama talks about bringing to Washington.
The biggest question about Obama is whether he has the experience and toughness to lead the country in dangerous times. Clinton and her surrogates rarely miss an opportunity to raise doubts about his readiness to assume the enormous responsibilities of the presidency. Apparently, many leading Democrats including Senate colleagues who have endorsed his candidacy don't share those doubts.
They speak of Obama's intellect, instincts, temperament and judgment. While he spoke out against the Iraq war from the start, Clinton's "experience" did not keep her from voting for this disastrous misadventure, or from misrepresenting her position, something she continues to do.
Clinton, a former first lady now serving her second term as a U.S. senator from New York, would bring conventional political experience to the Oval Office. Obama offers a different kind of experience - his "life experience" as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, as a Harvard law graduate who passed up a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship to work as a community organizer in Chicago's poor neighborhoods, as a state senator and since 2005 as a U.S. senator from Illinois.
Another Illinois politician was elected president with even less experience than Obama. He was a former state legislator and one-term congressman named Abraham Lincoln. We don't suggest that Obama is a Lincoln, only that Washington experience should not be the only standard for measuring a candidate's qualifications to be president.
We don't appreciate the Obama campaign memo spinning the Florida primary, which the Democratic candidates are boycotting, as a non-event that will have "no bearing" on the nomination contest. However, we don't think pique should be the basis for our choice. The Times recommends Barack Obama in the Jan. 29 Democratic primary.
Editor's Note: The Times' recommendation for the Republican presidential primary will be published Jan. 27. While that is closer to election day than usual, several of the candidates are just now turning their attention to Florida. The Republicans also will be participating in a debate Thursday night at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
[Last modified January 19, 2008, 20:18:37]