Democrats face tough choice between the credibility and likability of candidates

Following the results of Super Tuesday, one thing was clear: The front-runner for the Democratic nomination is anything but clear.

Democratic primaries and caucuses in 24 states across the country attracted voters who said the nation’s economy is at the top of their minds, followed by the war in Iraq, according to a CNN exit poll. While this news is probably no surprise to Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it does raise questions about which candidate is best equipped for the White House.

The mainstream media have created a stir: Will voters prefer a female candidate or an African-American candidate? In the unified Democratic Party, it’s not that simple. Instead, for many voters, it is a choice between likability and credibility.

A December article from the Pew Research Center indicated primary voters weren’t necessarily committed to voting for a candidate based solely on issues, but rather personal attributes, including Obama’s likability and compassion and Clinton’s experience and leadership ability. In this case, Obama’s inexperience is relatively immaterial and replaced by his wide appeal among African Americans and younger voters.

Does this mean Clinton is unlikable? Well, yes. Even liberal women, arguably the voters most similar to Clinton, aren’t quick to support her, according to a December article on CBSNews.com.

On the other hand, Clinton’s demonstrated leadership capability cannot be ignored. Her experience as first lady in Arkansas, later in the White House and now as a two-term U.S. senator, has given her the credibility needed to lead the country. If anything will hold Clinton back, it will be her vote to invade Iraq, an issue Obama has been quick to point out. But when it comes to economic and health care issues, Clinton and Obama mostly agree.

Although Clinton is the obvious choice for credibility and experience, likability is important. Obama’s appeal shouldn’t be discounted and isn’t necessarily in contrast with his capability as commander in chief. His chances of earning the nomination may be enhanced by his inexperience in Washington – he’s had less time to become a politician.

But voters shouldn’t choose Obama based solely on his likability. Rewind eight years, when President Bush was elected in 2000 largely because of his image as a good ol’ boy. His aw-shucks demeanor and tale of born-again Christianity lured voters – how could this down-home Texas rancher-turned-governor ever be a bad president?

Oops.

To win the nomination, Clinton and Obama must embrace their strengths and improve on their weaknesses. For Clinton, this means she should continue to draw on her past experiences and work to gain popularity among younger Democrats. Obama must not lose his charisma and continue his promise of change. He also needs to appease voters who are uneasy about his short tenure in Washington.

As both candidates battle for victory in remaining primaries, neither should ignore the value of the other. After all, what could be better than a credible and likeable Democratic ticket?

Kara Peterson is an advertising/public relations graduate student from Fort Worth.