A significant slice of Hillary Clinton's supporters &

that is, moderate Democrats &

might prefer McCain over Obama, or so I speculated a few weeks back. It was a hunch based on conversations and some suggestive but hardly definitive poll numbers.




Critics of this view waved numbers showing more support for Obama than for Clinton among independents. And other polls have Obama and Clinton beating McCain in a close general election &

but Obama enjoying a slightly higher margin. What gives?




The seemingly contradictory smoke signals come from mixing up "moderate" with "independent." Moderates within the Democratic Party tend to be deficit hawks, but on social issues can range from quite progressive to somewhat conservative. They sometimes vote Republican, but when they do, it's with a heavy heart.




Independents are another matter. Both parties aggravate them. They love to send messages to various establishments and treasure candidates who say things no one else will. We all know independents who voted for both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader &

and their very different brands of politics &

because they broke the mold.




This year, libertarian Ron Paul was their guy, as was archliberal Dennis Kucinich. Last December, a laid-off worker in New Hampshire peppered John Edwards with sharp questions. I had to ask him, "Which candidate do you like?" His favorites were the Republican Paul and the Democrat Kucinich.




A recent Pew Research Center survey supports my impression. It has 20 percent of white Clinton voters saying that if their candidate does not get the Democratic nomination, they might vote for McCain. Older, lower-income and less-educated Democrats also indicated some willingness to support McCain if Obama is the candidate. These are your Reagan Democrats &

blue-collar voters who responded to the broad appeal of Ronald Reagan.




Gilbert Ray, a Democrat from Fayetteville, N.C., describes this inner conflict as follows: "There's a lot that he (McCain) believes in that I disagree with, but unfortunately Sen.




Obama doesn't appear to me to have any answers to anything."




"I was young once, and I remember not delving very deep into the candidates' qualifications," he went on. "But I'm 60 now, and I'm very worried about the country, especially after eight years of G.W. Bush and his insane non-government."




This year each party has a mold-breaker out front. McCain virtually has the nomination, and Obama is neck and neck with Clinton. Independents like both McCain and Obama. As this relentless campaign wears on, however, the two candidates will seem less and less fresh and original.




For McCain to close a deal with moderate Democrats, he will have to offer comfort on certain issues. Steve Ganis, 56, of Stamford, Conn., says he likes McCain but wonders about his plans for the Supreme Court.




"My impression is that McCain would be more of a Reagan or George H.W. Bush in this matter, choosing a Sandra Day O'Connor or David Souter, who is not socially conservative," he said. McCain would have to address this matter, among others.




Recent reportage bubbled over Obama's ability to attract an overflow crowd of 10,000 to a Rhode Island rally &

twice the number that came to see Clinton in the same gymnasium a week before. Wouldn't it be something, the commentators said, if Obama prevailed in an old-school Democratic stronghold such as Rhode Island?




As it happened, Clinton handily won the primary with a 59-40 percent margin. While Obama's young crowds were jumping up and down in the gym, the Clintonian masses were sitting quietly in their suburban split-levels, rural Capes or blue-collar triple-deckers.




Lots can happen between now and November. But if Obama is the nominee, a chunk of the Democratic heartland could well be up for grabs.




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