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The Great Divide... On a Slightly Smaller Scale

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By Karin Caifa

In an America divvied up between red and blue, it doesn't get bluer than Manhattan's Upper West Side. Democrats dominate the blocks between Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Columbia University. But is this swath of the island developing a political fault line?

During my five years in the neighborhood, political leanings became palpable pretty quickly. It wasn't uncommon to stroll up Broadway towards the gourmet food markets and find a cluster of anti-war protesters outside Citarella, volunteers taking signatures for Democratic candidates on the sidewalk in front of Fairway and a guy peddling buttons with slogans like "Dump Dubya" outside Zabar's.

The numbers back up the anecdotes.  Democrat Jerry Nadler, who represents the congressional district that includes this party stronghold, won re-election in 2006 with 85 percent of the vote over Republican and Conservative challengers. Since his first election in 1992, he's won by wide margins, usually garnering 70-80% of the vote.

This weekend I went back to my old neighborhood and discovered that the fierce anti-Bush sentiment is alive and well among most residents, but there's a split when it comes to which Democrat should succeed him: Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

The New York state primary behind them, folks there were still pledging allegiances this weekend. One pedestrian paired his "W. = Wrong" button with another that read "Obama '08."  Another coupled a pin declaring "Party Like It's 01.20.09" with one below out simply reading "Hillary." Obama. On the blocks between Broadway and Central Park, signs in the upper windows of brownstones alternated between those for the senator from Illinois, and those for the hometown senator. On a daily basis, Obama and Clinton supporters stand side-by-side at the deli counter and at newsstands here, and rub elbows on the #1 subway line.

If you look at the current delegate count, the Hillary vs. Obama split is playing out among Democrats all over the country. More than two-thirds of the country has voiced a primary preference and, according to CNN's count, Clinton holds a tenuous, 27-delegate lead. (That's counting pledged superdelegates.) But this Manhattan neighborhood is a microcosm of the big debate. 

From my perch at a Starbucks near Lincoln Center over the weekend, I couldn't help but notice two women getting up from their table, both with Obama pins on their winter jackets. I asked one of the women, Shari, how she made her decision.

"He is amazing," she said, punctuating each of those three words as her friend nodded in agreement. "I have never felt so inspired. We have been waiting for this for so long. If someone like him could just get to Washington, get into the White House, I feel like we, as a country, could start feeling again, could start dreaming again."

Was she disappointed that Obama lost New York's primary last week?

"Hey, it was closer than we thought it would be," Shari replied. "Don't forget, Hillary is entrenched in this state and in this city."

And would Shari cast a vote to keep Clinton as the senator from New York?

"Of course. I think she does a fine job in that role," she answered.

Later I talked to Steve, a guy in his late 20s sporting two Hillary buttons on his messenger bag, a fading Hillary sticker on his jacket and a pink rubber bracelet reading, "Hillary 2008." I asked him how he chose between the two.

"I like Obama, don't get me wrong. He's an amazing speaker," Steve told me. "It's great to be hopeful, it's great to push for change, and it's an important message for the country. But you have to be practical. I don't think Obama has the kind of experience you need to make that change," he said, almost spitting back a Clinton talking point.

And one elderly woman told me she feels so strongly about her candidate that she'll - gasp! - cross party lines in the general election if she has to. "I can't stand Obama," she told me, as bluntly as a New Yorker often will. "If he's the nominee over Hillary, I swear I will go and vote for McCain."

Really? Vote for a Republican, even on the Upper West Side?

"I know," she said, reaching out and grabbing my arm. I wonder if she was steadying herself or simply assuming I was shocked. "And I've never voted any other way than with the Democrats. I can't believe I'm saying it either." 

She walked away clucking and shaking her head. Then she paused a moment, pumped her fist and exclaimed, "Hillary!"

A young woman at a nearby table looked up from her laptop and latte to shout back, "Yeah!"

Then from a table in the corner, a crisp staccato, "Obama!"

And then good-natured giggles across the coffee shop, a sign that maybe the divide isn't that insurmountable.

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