A tea leaf from the primary

After a primary campaign that seemed to last a lifetime, we should spend at least one column reading the tea leaves. Or at least this one leaf: I think we'll look back on this year as a healthy stride toward regaining ownership of our own elections.

That hunch comes from the two top races on the Democratic ballot (neither of which had drama or uncertainty on the Republican side). I connect Barack Obama's wildly improbable ascent &

from curiosity to apparent nominee &

to a vivid moment last August, when I sat with about 2,000 Netroots activists watching eight Democratic candidates debate in a Chicago convention hall. Asked whether she would continue to take money from Washintgon lobbyists, Hillary Clinton said, "Yes, I will. I will. Because a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They actually do. They represent nurses, they represent social workers." (Watch You Tube's clip of this event and you'll see John Edwards next to Hillary, looking like he might explode; he stares down at tightly clasped hands, biting his tongue so hard you wonder if blood will flow).

"Yes," she continued, "they represent corporations that employ a lot of people. So, the idea that somehow a contribution is going to influence you, I just ask you to look at my record ... I do want to be the president for everybody, and I want to represent the entire country, and that is what I'm aiming to do in my campaign." Judging from the hooting that followed, her reasoning didn't pass the straight-face test in that hall. Judging from the primaries that followed, it didn't work much better for many other voting Democrats.

It would be foolish to reduce the fascinating Obama/Clinton contest to any single factor. But if my political ear is working, a cornerstone of Obama's appeal is that he's funded his campaign with far more small individual-citizen contributions than any serious presidential candidate in history.

If political leaders are owned by their campaign contributors, then far more of us own this guy than anyone who's gone before. Those sifting through the details can credibly argue that there may be some special-interest money in his war chest, but the cold fact is that Hillary Clinton is more indebted to the Washington power lobbies, the ones who "represent real Americans," than he is.

My sense is that the growing hunger in America for leaders who don't roll over for campaign contributors (and in Hillary's case this could be more perception than fact) is a big reason that Barack Obama will win the Democratic nomination.

The same force was at work one notch down the ticket, where Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley edged out lawyer Steve Novick for the right to take on U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith in November. The result wasn't surprising, but the margin of victory was. Merkley was groomed and handpicked by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The upper ranks of the party lined up behind him so quickly that some rank-and-file Democrats wondered if they still had a role in the process.

Novick, an aggressive activist with no electoral background, based a campaign on the quaint notion that Oregonians, rather than party poobahs, should pick Oregon's U.S. Senate nominee. He was much more specific about challenging entrenched power and institutionalized bribery. He laid out a persuasive case that he'd be more qualified to just-say-no to Schumer and Harry Reid (D-NV when they wanted his vote for unrestricted Iraq War appropriations or to extend the president's power on domestic surveillance.

Novick lost. But here's what's clear to me: If contenders exactly like these two had run in 2002, the last time Senator Smith's seat was up, the establishment candidate's winning margin would probably have been 25 or 30 points. I imagine that two years ago it might have been 10 to 15 points.

Last Tuesday, Merkley, backed by almost every marquis-name Democrat in sight, defeated unapproved insurgent Novick by a mere four points. As impatient as many of us are to have our country back, that is historic movement.

As it happens, Jeff seems like an earnest guy who wants to go to Washington for reasons I admire. His differences with Novick are more about means than ends. Jeff seems embedded in go-along-to-get-along politics.

That approach has wisdom in an institution like the Congress, but somewhere along the way it crowded out vision and courage; as a practical matter "going along" has meant sustaining (however reluctantly) energy, health care, tax, agriculture, economic, military and foreign policies that almost none of us want.

How do we get what we want? backing candidates without debts to patrons and contributors who like the status quo much more than we do. Oregon Democrats just took a solid step in that direction.

Note: Want to join others who believe elections should belong to the people? Visit .

is the author of "As If We Were Grownups," "Forest Blood" and the new novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts at ).

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