At night, when Mark Penn sleeps and dreams of Hillary Clinton’s electorate, his head dances with visions of voters like this. Born June 13, 1944. White, female. College-educated. An elementary school teacher. Pays a mortgage and worries about her retirement. A lifelong Democrat. Born in the North, but lives in the South. Has four kids, three of them girls. Divorced. Definitely convinced that a woman could run this country.
Mr. Penn, meet my mother, Diane Rice.
My mom’s opinion mattered last week. She lives in South Carolina, the state that held the attention of the political world as it hosted the fourth contest of the Democratic primary season. For the last few months, as momentum swung back and forth between Clinton and Barack Obama, I’d been asking my mother which way she was leaning, always assuming it was toward the first woman to make a serious run. Mom deflected my questions with a cagey smile, saying she only wanted someone who could win, but there were many telltale signs of her preference. In December, like (I assume) a lot of registered Democrats in South Carolina, Mom received a glossy Christmas card from the Clinton family. She propped the smiling portrait of Bill and Hillary up on the microwave next to a picture of her sisters, and it stayed there through the holidays.
Last week, I went back to Columbia, my hometown, to cover the primary. I found my mother in an advanced state of fretfulness, and the Clintons’ card had disappeared. Over the previous few weeks, Mom’s sympathies had whipsawed at a dizzying pace. After Iowa, she’d told me she was angry that Hillary Clinton was being counted out so early. Just before New Hampshire, she’d said she felt sorry for Hillary—all the pressure she was under from the media and those dismissive male candidates. But afterward, she’d been little chagrined to see the female candidate’s victory credited to a few phantom tears. Now, a few days before my mother had to vote, she didn’t know what to do. Recent events had turned her into that elusive and mysterious animal, the undecided voter.
Mom told me her confusion had really set in a few nights before, with the Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach. All that nasty invective about slumlords and Wal-Mart had really turned her off. No one looked good, except maybe John Edwards. (Poor John Edwards! Mom loves his wife.) But mostly, my mother blamed Clinton for the negativity. “Boy, you want to see an angry-looking woman,” Mom said. “She looked like she would have choked Obama if she could have.”
My mom has never really understood why some people—men, mostly—hate Hillary so much. The day I got to Columbia, she received an automated message on her answering machine that contained a sulfurous litany of references to the likes of Vince Foster. Mom didn’t enjoy hearing that one bit. But she did worry about what the crazies might do to Hillary in a general election campaign. Two nights before the primary, I came home from covering a Bill Clinton speech in the little town of Barnwell and found Mom in front of the television, watching the G.O.P. candidates debate in Florida. “I’ll tell you, those Republicans didn’t look bad,” she said, worriedly. “I mean, they’re not bickering.”
Among the political columnists and the cable TV blabbermouths, the consensus was that Clinton had won the Myrtle Beach debate, making Obama look flustered, and that the master tactician Bill Clinton was “getting inside his head.” On the ground in South Carolina, I saw a totally different reaction to the attacks. The night before the primary, Barack Obama spoke in the town of Florence. A long line stretched around the local civic center as thousands of shivering people of all races waited to clear airport-style security. When Obama came on, he looked tired and sounded defensive. “Don’t believe that stuff,” he told the audience. “They’re trying to mess with your mind. Hoodwink you. Bamboozle you.” It wasn’t his finest performance, but the audience was enthralled. People shouted out “Yes!” as the candidate delivered the most prosaic of lines, in the classic call-and-response pattern of evangelical churches. It was as if the crowd was willing itself to be inspired, as if it was lifting Obama, and not the other way around.
I got locked out of Obama’s final event of the primary campaign, a late-night speech at a concert hall in Columbia, which was so packed that fire marshals cut off entry. Back at home Mom was sitting around, looking for coverage of Obama’s speech. A local television station’s Web site was streaming it live. Mom watched, and then she took an online quiz that was designed to match her to a candidate. She told the computer that she wanted our troops out of Iraq, didn’t want war with Iran, wanted more money for education and approved of tighter gun laws. The computer told Mom to vote for Dennis Kucinich. She crinkled her nose. Mom poked around the Web a bit more, investigating Obama’s platform. She liked his stance against predatory lending practices.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “I feel like I’m picking the next president.”
She sat pensively for a moment.
“I think I’ll vote for Obama,” she said, finally. “Really, I just want to pick a winner.”
She still wanted to sleep on it. The next morning, Election Day, all the candidates made the rounds to the morning news shows. Hillary looked harried and bug-eyed; Obama was confident and composed. “He’s so impressive to me,” Mom said. “I just hope people will vote for a biracial person.”