WASHINGTON — “That’s an excellent question” normally doesn’t make the list of utterances that can get a candidate in trouble on the campaign trail. But this presidential campaign isn’t what anyone would call normal.

John McCain gave that anodyne response Monday at a “town hall” event in South Carolina when an elegant woman, of patrician bearing, posed this question about a possible Democratic nominee: “How do we beat the (expletive)?”

The expletive in question is a highly derogatory word used by rappers to describe the scantily clad women who gyrate in the background of racy music videos. It’s the word that former first lady Barbara Bush was hinting at when someone asked her opinion of Geraldine Ferraro and she replied, “I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”

It’s hard to write a newspaper column about a word that most editors won’t print in a family newspaper. But I knew the job was dangerous when I took it, so we press on.

McCain went on to answer the South Carolina woman’s rude question by citing a poll indicating he could defeat Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head race. Then he circled back to interject, “I respect Senator Clinton. I respect anyone who gets the nomination of the Democrat Party.” But critics in the blogosphere and on the cable networks — particularly CNN’s Rick Sanchez — leapt to point out that Mr. Straight Talk could have been a lot quicker and stronger in telling the questioner that her choice of words was out of line.

After all, McCain once reportedly described Clinton fondly as “one of the guys” in the clubby world of the U.S. Senate. Three years ago, McCain and Clinton even downed shots of vodka together on a trip to Estonia, although they later denied that an actual drinking contest had ensued.

When the criticism persisted, McCain’s campaign came out swinging — against CNN, which a fundraising e-mail from campaign manager Rick Davis called “The Clinton News Network.” But that gambit only managed to keep the story alive. The idea of John McCain running against the media is beyond counterintuitive, almost as if a fish were trying to pick a fight with water.

It was just an odd little moment, among many, in an odd campaign. In the end, I think it tells us less about McCain than it does about Clinton’s unprecedented candidacy — her unique strengths and her unique vulnerabilities.

As the first woman with a legitimate shot at being elected president, Clinton has brilliantly navigated the minefield of gender. A year ago, the conventional wisdom was that voters, especially men, might perceive a woman as soft or weak, and thus worry about how she would perform as commander in chief. Today, her Democratic opponents attack her as too hawkish, and few doubt her ability to command.

Yet she has also found a way to speak to women, or at least Democratic women, in a “just us girls” tone of voice that manages not to come off as cloying. Her Democratic rivals face a problem that a Republican opponent would face in the general election, if she were to get the nomination: How to attack her without seeming either sexist or ungallant. They still haven’t quite figured it out; the recent damage to her campaign has been self-inflicted.

But there’s another side to the rhymes-with-rich episode. What would possess that nice Republican lady in South Carolina to phrase her question in such a vulgar way?

Basically, because Hillary Clinton drives the Republican base absolutely bonkers. In part, this has to do with history; she summons what, to some, are traumatic memories of the Clinton years. Her candidacy also brings with it the whiff of a Clinton Restoration, since Bill would return to the White House as consort. But I’m not sure the historical factor alone is enough to provoke such potty-mouthed passion.

I think some of the Hillary-hatred arises simply because she’s a woman — and because that vulgar word, the one that rhymes with rich, is always available to describe a woman who gets a little too powerful, or acts like too much of a smarty-pants, or exudes a bit too much authority. That word isn’t just a put-down, it’s also a pointed question: Just who the hell does she think she is?

The answer, at the moment, is that she’s leading the Democratic field. Her candidacy, like Barack Obama’s in a different context, is forcing the nation to confront old assumptions and prejudices — forcing us to decide just who the hell we think we are.

No, definitely not a campaign you could describe as normal.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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