WASHINGTON — The thematic backdrop of the Democratic nomination contest thus far is the triumph of hope over experience. It has carried Barack Obama, a freshman senator whose principal experience in public office has been as an Illinois state legislator, to a down-to-the-wire matchup with Hillary Clinton, whose experience includes eight years as first lady and seven years in the Senate.

The mismatched resumes seem to have had little bearing on Democratic primary voters, who turn out by the thousands for Obama rallies and have helped propel him to gaping margins of victory in caucuses and, more significantly, in last week’s Virginia and Maryland primaries. Obama’s campaign relishes what it believes will be a fall contest against 71-year-old Republican John McCain, a veteran senator tied to President Bush’s misguided polices at home and abroad.

Fresh-face-for-the-future versus failed-policies-of-the-past is an easy, if not automatic, choice for these times, the thinking goes.

The prescription may well involve a large dose of wishful thinking. It ignores, in particular, the difficulty that Obama has had attracting support from older Democrats, who have routinely supported Clinton.

Even as he was building huge margins in Maryland and Virginia, for example, Obama’s overall edge among older voters was due to his overwhelming support from African-Americans. Clinton beat Obama among white voters over 45 in Virginia, and trounced him among those 60 and older. In Maryland, she won whites in every age group beginning with those 30-44; among white Maryland Democrats 60 and older, Clinton beat Obama 2-1.

Are they motivated by race? Or did those supporting Clinton believe that with age and experience comes a certain amount of wisdom and judgment? And why are these voters important?

Because many of them tend to fit the profile of the original Reagan Democrats. Some of them, in fact, were Reagan Democrats who have since returned to the fold. The men, especially, have little discomfort in switching parties in the general election, particularly when national security issues come to the fore. Many of them are military veterans, and they may instinctively trust McCain on national security, even if they have soured on the Iraq war.

Indeed, if Obama makes any direct or implied accusation that McCain is a warmonger because the Arizona senator voted for the Iraq war, supports the “surge” there and is bellicose toward Iran, it can be easily parried: No one who has actually experienced the horror of war goes to war recklessly, the former Vietnam POW can say.

In fact, the whole of the experience question will return in an Obama-McCain contest, simply because a man would be matched against another man. Neither Obama’s campaign nor the media will be able to diminish McCain’s experience, as they have with Clinton’s.

The Obama arc in the Democratic primaries is familiar to those who have studied previous contests involving women candidates who’ve run for governor. Voters routinely discount a woman candidate’s experience when they are matched against men, demanding very specific information about her record of fiscal management, crisis response, and political acumen compared with male candidates in the same contests. “Voters need more information to conclude that a woman is prepared to be governor than they need to draw the same conclusion about a man,” according to research done in 2001 by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which promotes women’s political leadership. “Men were assumed to be qualified to lead their state if they had a resume that simply listed positions of leadership and service.”

A hidden reason the lopsided Obama/Clinton experience argument has so far been won by Obama is that she’s a woman, and so her own experience can be easily dismissed. Obama himself tried this tack in December, when he likened Clinton’s unprecedented foreign travels as first lady to having “tea” in the “ambassador’s house.” In fact, Clinton traveled to refugee camps, impoverished villages, remote health clinics and other venues far less comfortable than any embassy.

McCain cannot be cut down to size in this way. The political biography he brings to the race automatically will remind voters that they are choosing a commander in chief. In the primaries, Obama has countered the commander in chief argument with assertions that Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war is disqualifying. It has worked among Democratic voters who have long opposed the Iraq misadventure.

The general electorate is not as inflamed about that 2002 vote as Democratic activists are. Voters in November really will make a judgment about the future — who can best manage the Iraq mess — and not the past.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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