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In Iowa, a victory for authenticity (and trouble for poseurs)

The Baltimore Sun

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton talked a lot about building "a bridge to the 21st century." Right now, his wife looks like an unappealing detour back to the 20th.

The Iowa caucuses, it should be noted, are rarely as decisive as they may appear. Since 1976, only one candidate has won Iowa on the way to becoming president - George W. Bush in 2000. But if you can't win the election in Iowa, you can put yourself in a solid position to lose it, which is what Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards accomplished last week.

Thursday evening was full of surprises. I would not have guessed that Sen. Barack Obama would reprise a German slogan chanted upon the fall of the Berlin Wall: "We are one people." But it was appropriate, since the polarization of the last 15 years has featured everything short of an Iron Curtain between the red states and the blue.

Mike Huckabee waxed grandiose in his victory speech, declaring, "Tonight, I hope we will forever change the way Americans look at their political system and how we elect presidents and elected officials." Somehow I doubt that 20 or 50 years from now, Americans will look back and say, "That was the moment that changed us forever."

It's one thing for an evangelical darling to win in Iowa. It's another to win elsewhere, especially when you lack money and face an expanded field of capable opponents. Once voters get to know the newcomer better, he may look worse than the other options.

But Mr. Huckabee was on to something earlier when he said voters should choose someone "authentic." That is not an adjective anyone would apply to Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is less a flesh-and-blood person than an assemblage of focus-tested attributes that could be instantly reconfigured on demand. He brought a business executive's skill at raising money and identifying the demands of his customers, in this case Republican voters. But in trying to meet their every specification, he left the unappetizing impression he would say anything to become president.

A virtue in a capitalist - being willing to do whatever is needed to satisfy the target audience - becomes a vice in the political realm, where it looks like an acute lack of principle or character. Voters in Iowa seem to prefer a candidate who appears true with them, and true to himself. Or herself, which raises a problem for Mrs. Clinton. Like Mr. Romney, she executes programmed responses with the efficiency and warmth of a Dell Inspiron desktop.

Much has been made of Mr. Obama's complexion, with good reason. For an African-American to win the opening round of a presidential campaign is truly historic, even if it doesn't lead to ultimate victory. But his appeal has more to do with skin comfort than skin color. Mr. Obama is at ease in his epidermis in a way that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Romney are not. He offers a reassuring grace and calm likewise absent in John Edwards, who pretended that finishing second in a state where he has concentrated his efforts is proof that Americans yearn for a pitchfork populist. From Mr. Edwards' speech Thursday night, you would never guess he did worse this time than when he ran in 2004, with a more genial approach.

Mr. Obama has succeeded by preaching our essential unity; Mr. Edwards has failed by trying to exploit - or, more accurately, create - divisions and resentments.

As with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Romney, the campaign raised the question of what about Mr. Edwards, if anything, is genuine. And this year, that may be a fatal question.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is schapman@tribune.com.

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