Are Voters Ready to Make History?

Sen. Barack Obama's rise to rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in early polls among Democratic presidential contenders has given Democrats two chances to make history.

Illinois' Obama would give the nation the chance to pick its first black president. New York's Clinton would be the first woman.

Political analysts and other observers say it is probably possible for each of them to gather enough electoral votes to win.

Many observers of the still unofficial campaigns say Americans are no longer too racist to elect a black candidate, or too sexist to elect a woman.

If John Kerry had carried either Ohio or Florida, he would have won the 2004 election. Clinton and Obama are getting some of the highest polling numbers of any candidates in early polls, though they have not made a formal announcement.

"If you voted for Al Gore or John Kerry, are you not going to vote for Barack Obama? Are you not going to vote for Hillary Clinton?" said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.

"You don't have to carry 50 states and the District [of Columbia]. I don't think it's that much of an additional burden," Rothenberg said.

The two freshman senators are each likely to face more skepticism for their thin resumes and liberal politics, he said.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Mike Steele, who recently lost his bid to become the first black senator from Maryland, agrees.

"Whenever you get to the threshold of doing something for the first time or you have a 'first' on a local or national stage, there's always part of that conversation that falls to hype and excited utterances," Steele said.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that race and gender are not yet irrelevant, but added that they would not affect an Obama or Clinton candidacy.

"They still matter but not in this case," Luntz said. "Obama is popular despite his race and Hillary Clinton is popular despite her agenda. His race is not relevant and her gender is not relevant. Not for them and not for this situation."

The last female candidate on the presidential ticket, then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York, took the second slot on the ill-fated 1984 Democratic ticket with Walter Mondale.

But actress Geena Davis has already broken the gender barrier on ABC's "Commander in Chief."

Rothenberg said Clinton, who defeated Republican Rep. Rick Lazio for her Senate seat by 12 percentage points, is "absolutely" electable.

Gender, said Clare Giesen, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus, is no longer a threshold issue for American voters.

"Not like it was for Geraldine Ferraro. It's always going to be an issue in our lifetime," Giesen said. "I think it does on a subliminal level. And I do think it's a prejudice that they think a woman couldn't be a good commander in chief."

The nation is also ready for a black president, Steele said.

"I think so -- absolutely," Steele said. "Thirty-four years after Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972, we've seen the continued rise of African-American leadership in state, local and national government."

David Bositis, senior analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, published an analysis called "Blacks and the 2006 Midterm Elections." It was released today.

The center's stated goals are to "improve the socioeconomic status of black Americans and other minorities." He said whether black candidates are electable depends more on the candidate than the public.

Can Obama win?

"In terms of running for president, getting enough electoral votes to win: Yes," Bositis said.

In a handful of other states, such as Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana, though, Bositis said the chances wouldn't be as good.

He noted that in the Illinois race for Senate, Obama won a majority of the vote in a field of multiple candidates, including some who were better funded.

Democrats have long been losing much of the South, he noted.

"It's going to take him actually getting into the primary to see what kind of reaction he causes in terms of voters," Bositis said. "Does he have the potential to win? Yes. He has a lot of positive things going for him."

Luntz, the Republican pollster, noted that Democrats have long been losing much of the South.

"If Democrats are winning South Carolina, then they're winning in 50 states. There's one state that matters. And that's Ohio. Ohio is a microcosm of America," Luntz said.

Rothenberg said neither Obama nor Clinton face the uphill hurdle ahead of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon whose religion has become the source of debate among the conservative Christian wing of the party.

"I think if we're talking about religion, gender and race, discreet and separate qualities that could affect a candidate's electability, I actually think Romney's Mormonism is the biggest problem, because it affects him with the base," Rothenberg said.