The Hillary and Barack show

Here’s the problem the Democrats face: They know too much about Hillary Clinton and not enough about Barack Obama. Clinton has a boatload of baggage after 15 years in the national spotlight; Obama is an untested commodity after barely two years in the Senate. But primary voters will probably have to choose between them: the first woman, or minority, to head a major-party ticket.

Of course, one or both could still decide not to run. But Clinton is already recruiting supporters and has hired a finance director. Obama is headed to New Hampshire this weekend to make speeches and sign books, not to ski.

And yes, the Hillary and Barack Show won’t have the stage to itself. Democratic victories last month encouraged a long list of dreamers: Bayh, Vilsack, Edwards, Biden, Dodd, Richardson, Kerry, perhaps even Gore.

But if Clinton and Obama do run, they will suck up the three commodities that matter most in the 13 months prior to the Iowa caucus: money, staff and media attention. So at this early stage, how do they stack up against each other?

After eight years as first lady and six in the Senate, Hillary is one of the most experienced candidates in recent history. She’s evolved into a fine legislator, gaining the respect of Republican colleagues like John McCain and shedding the liberal label by establishing moderate credentials on such issues as abortion and video games.

Sure, she won re-election in a Democratic year, against a weak opponent, but no serious rival had the guts to challenge her – and her victory was still impressive. She has the potential of tapping into a reservoir of female pride, power and money. She’s the best fundraiser around, with the possible exception of her husband, Bill, and she’ll always have her party’s most effective strategist behind her.

But her drawbacks equal her assets. She is the most polarizing figure in America. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, 41 percent say she’s not qualified to be president (56 percent say she is), and in exit polls last month, two out of five voters said they’d never vote for her.

One South Carolina Democrat told The New York Times that she couldn’t win even if she “promised to eliminate the income tax and give free ice cream to everyone.” Republicans are dying to send out a fund-raising appeal that reads: “Stop Hillary. Send Money.”

She might be married to Bill Clinton, but there are enormous differences. He was a Southern governor, she is a Northern senator, and the country hasn’t elected a lawmaker or a Frost Belter since 1960. Most importantly, she lacks the natural charm and the magical ability to connect with people that made Bill so magnetic.

In the Quinnipiac poll, voters were asked to rank 20 politicians on a “feeling thermometer.” She finished ninth on the warmth index, well below the leader, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, potential rival McCain (third) and her husband (fifth).

Which brings us to Barack Obama, who finished second. Forty percent of Americans don’t know him well enough to have an opinion, but still, that’s a stunning result, and political insiders are trying to figure out why he has emerged so quickly as such a scintillating star.

Partly it’s his story: The mixed race son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan, raised in Hawaii by a single mother, he overcame early troubles with drugs to become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Partly it’s his comfort with faith: At a conservative Christian church in Orange County, Calif., he recently received a standing ovation when he declared: “This is my house, too. This is God’s house. We’ve all got a stake in each other. I am my brother’s keeper.”

Partly it’s his message of unity and optimism: He repeatedly condemns the “slash-and-burn, highly ideological politics” of recent years. He even titled his recent book “The Audacity of Hope.”

Like Hillary, Barack has enormous problems. No one knows whether he will melt down in the fierce heat of a presidential campaign, made even hotter by modern technology that captures and communicates even the smallest misstep. And in a dangerous world, as Iraq falls apart, will voters feel comfortable choosing a leader with virtually no foreign experience?

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