Presidential campaigns are educational. The 2008 primaries are a year away, but we're already seeing the Conventional Wisdom flipped on its head, teaching us Americans new lessons about ourselves.
Who, for example, would have expected former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, known to favor abortion rights, gay rights and gun control, to be surging ahead of Sen. John McCain of Arizona in major polls of Republicans even among Southerners and Christian conservatives?
A new Time magazine poll, for example, puts Giuliani 14 points ahead of McCain in late February, erasing the 4-point lead that McCain had a month earlier.
Giuliani also surged ahead of McCain by 44 percent to 21 percent in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, wiping out McCain's 7 percentage-point advantage a month earlier.
It also wipes out the Conventional Wisdom that the twice-divorced, libertarian Giuliani would be struggling to explain himself and, perhaps, how to pronounce his name to cultural conservatives who don't quite cotton to them New Yawk lib-brul types.
Well, as they might say in Brooklyn, Fuggeda-boud-it. The new Conventional Wisdom, based on the polls, casts "Rudy-Gee-ooli" as a darling of the Christian right.
How'd he do it? Washington's chattering classes easily explain it:
One, McCain, who has patched up angry relations with the Rev. Jerry Falwell and turned against the Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion, is seen by rock-ribbed conservative Republicans as a flip-flopper.
Two, Giulani scores big as a national security icon after his heroic take-charge leadership during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Oh? Well, guess what? A closer look at the polling reveals another reason: A lot of the conservatives who support Giuliani as a Keep-Us-Safe leader don't know what else he believes.
More than a third of voters overall and almost half of self-described "born-again" white Christians say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who was married three times, in the Time poll. But a 56-percent majority of voters and 54 percent of "born agains" either said incorrectly that this does not describe Giuliani or said that they did not know if it did.
More than half of voters overall gave similarly incorrect or don't-know responses on the questions of whether Giuliani supported President Bush's increasingly unpopular Iraq war policy (he does) or opposes gun control (he doesn't).
Imagine how that must make McCain feel. His appeal has been burdened recently by his allegiance to Bush's war stance. Giuliani gets a free pass while holding the same position. That's OK. The new Conventional Wisdom says we can expect Giuliani's opponents to launch a massive campaign to educate the public on what Rudy really thinks.
And, speaking of knowing or not knowing enough about a candidate, the Conventional Wisdom also has flipped in favor of Sen. Barack Obama.
Remember the stories and commentaries, including my own, that questioned whether Obama was "black enough" as the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya to win black votes? What, I wondered, do the speculators expect? That he should speak Ebonics and join the Crips?
Nevertheless, mainstream media reported with great surprise that polls showed Obama lagging behind the party's frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, among black voters.
As I opined at the time, this should come as a surprise only to those who expect black voters to reflexively jump behind a black candidate. Most black voters, like most other voters, are still learning who he is.
And now, lookee here: The latest ABC/ Washington Post poll. It shows Obama has more than doubled his black support in one month!
From late January to late February, Obama's support jumped from 20 percent of black voters to 44 percent in the poll. At the same time, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's black support fell from 60 percent to only 33 percent. I am vindicated.
But, as heartwarming as it is to see that a woman can be a presidential frontrunner and an African American can mount a serious challenge, it is saddening to see prejudice rearing its ugly head against a surprising target: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's religion.
Although about two-thirds of voters in the Time poll said it did not matter to them if a candidate were a Mormon, as Romney is, the other third said they would be less likely to support one. Only 5 percent said they'd be less likely to support an African American and 13 percent less likely to support a woman.
A similar Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll last July found more than twice as many voters said they would oppose a Muslim or a Mormon than a Jew or a Catholic. Biases fade the more people get to know each other. Mitt's got his work cut out for him.
Yes, campaigns teach us a lot about ourselves. Americans have made progress since the day when John F. Kennedy proved a Catholic could win, defying that era's Conventional Wisdom. But not enough.
Now the Baltimore Sun reports that Obama's ancestors may have included slaveholders. Again, the Conventional Wisdom is turned on its head. Who knows? At this rate, Obama could be the first presidential candidate to owe reparations to himself!