A nightmarish vision of a McCain-Huckabee ticket haunted me as the votes came in on Super Tuesday night.

It was too much to contemplate, this Stone Age combination of Sen. John McCain, who envisions us staying in Iraq for 100 years, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a believer in creationism.

The next morning, a closer examination of the exit polls cheered me up. Improving on a trend that was evident in his South Carolina primary victory, Barack Obama increased his share of the white vote, confounding skeptics who have maintained whites won’t vote for an African-American. As Gary Langer of ABC News noted, “Obama won white men in five of the 16 states where exit polls were conducted.” In California, white men favored Obama over Sen. Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 34 percent.

This was the best news of a night when Clinton and Obama battled to a tie that will extend their struggle to future state contests, perhaps all the way to the Democratic National Convention. Is it possible the country is moving beyond the racial divide, with younger voters no longer trapped by the prejudices of the past?

After Super Tuesday, Democrats worried that a long Clinton-Obama contest might irreparably damage the party’s prospects in November. Actually, the bigger threat is McCain winning the GOP nomination — as appears almost certain now with the exit of Mitt Romney — especially if the Arizona senator decides to appease the Republican right by choosing Huckabee as his running mate.

The states Huckabee carried Tuesday — his own Arkansas plus Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia — encompass the heart of the South, pretty much Republican country since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts more than 40 years ago.

As Huckabee said on “Fox and Friends” Wednesday: “You cannot win as a Republican if you don’t carry [the South]. You just can’t.” As for the vice presidency, he said on NBC’s “Today” show: “Let’s go ahead and be honest now. Nobody ever wants the vice president’s job. Nobody ever turns it down.”

To understand the danger posed by such a combo, you must first attempt, for the sake of argument, to briefly put aside their outrageous opinions. I know it is hard to forget McCain’s support of the surge in Iraq and his willingness to keep troops there for a century. Or to forget Huckabee’s view of amending the Constitution: “I believe it is a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do, is to amend the Constitution so that it fits God’s standards.”

What is dangerous about Huckabee is that he is a good campaigner with the manner of what he once was — the minister of a Baptist church with a friendly, humorous way of speaking developed over years of sermonizing, counseling troubled couples and leading youth groups. Don’t be misled by his limited appeal to his Southern region and the Christian right. The man is easy to underestimate.

McCain shouldn’t be underestimated either, although many — including some prominent journalists and pundits — did when his campaign almost fell apart last summer. He’s got a great biography, and he deals with critics in his audiences in a forthright and winning way. I witnessed that one night in Iowa when he spoke to a Christian right group. One man, a thorough know-it-all, blasted McCain for believing in global warming. McCain listened politely and then disarmingly said maybe you’re right. But maybe you’re not. Isn’t it smart to do the research and make preparations in case you’re not? All through the audience, I saw people nodding approvingly at the answer.

And polls indicate he would be a tough opponent. In California, considered safe for Democrats, the Field Poll, taken Feb. 3, showed Hillary Clinton beating him by just 45 per cent to 43 per cent and Obama leading him 47 percent to 40 percent.

With the right campaign smarts on the Democrats’ side, either Clinton or Obama should be able to beat McCain, with or without Huckabee on his ticket.

The issues are clearly with the Democrats.

The economy is plummeting, dragged down by the enormous debt being run up to finance the war. Hopefully, the Democrats will be able to make the connection in a stronger manner than they have done so far.

The Democrats are not fractured by huge ideological divisions. Both Clinton and Obama want out of Iraq, although she favors too slow a pullout. They disagree over health care, but it is somewhat of a wonkish dispute over whether everyone should be forced to have insurance.

Most important, together they can pull together a Democratic coalition that cuts across racial and economic class lines. Clinton won white women, Obama won white men. Latinos backed her, blacks supported him. They’ll fight hard but hopefully without damaging each other or themselves. The pre-Super Tuesday campaigning was actually pretty peaceful and collegial. If you want to see ugliness, go back to 1968 and 1972 when the Vietnam War tore the Democratic Party apart. I hope Clinton and Obama are smart enough to avoid having that happen again.

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