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Gary Younge
'It's time to take the men-only sign off the White House door'

"Talk about underdogs," said her college friend and adviser at the time, Tony Podesta. "I couldn't even find a professional fundraiser who she could pay to work for her."

But she won, becoming the first black, female senator in the country's history and the first woman senator from the state of Illinois.

In 1999, when she was up for nomination to become the United States ambassador to New Zealand, she faced tough opposition. The Senate foreign relation's committee chairman was Jesse Helms - a rabid right-winger with racial politics from the neolithic age and views on gender that were not much more advanced - who attempted to block her posting. But Moseley-Braun won through with a whopping 96-2 endorsement and went on to serve as ambassador to New Zealand for two years.

So when she declared: "It's time to take the men-only sign off the White House door," to become the only woman to join the Democratic presidential race, she undoubtedly felt more comfortable than most with her outsider status. Her announcement came complete with heavy fanfare and placards hailing "Ms President", but it was an inauspicious start. Heavy snow in Iowa had prevented many from attending.

Nevertheless Moseley-Braun, a veteran campaigner and eloquent speaker, was there to deliver a message that went way beyond the mid-west to the Middle East and Washington: "[I'm] running because I want to be a voice of hope for people who believe war is not the answer to our domestic security, and budget deficits are not a way to grow this economy," she said.

Few credit her with having any chance of winning, but she has the potential to make a vital impact on the race. She has come forward at a time when some of the most prominent women on both sides of the political divide are black. The Republicans have national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, while the woman who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign, Donna Brazile, is also African-American.

Moseley-Bruan represents a crucial demographic, both within the Democratic party and the anti-war movement. More than 80% of African-Americans vote for the Democrats. Among them black women are the most loyal, with more than 90% backing the party.

On the anti-war front, women are less hawkish than men (63% to 73%), while African-Americans remain the racial group least likely to back military action. Only 44% of black Americans support a war, compared with 73% of whites and 67% of hispanics. The other two identifiable groups most likely to oppose the war are Democrats and those with a college education.

So as a black, female Democrat with a college education Moseley-Braun certainly knows her audience. "I am a budget hawk and a peace dove. The unilateral attempt to take military action against Iraq is not in the interest of our long-term security. And the budget deficit is another matter. We have no right to saddle our children with our debt and our bad decisions."

And all this comes at a time when George Bush is threatening to remove affirmative action, there is the prospect of an anti-abortion judge being nominated for the supreme court, and the possibility that a presidential campaign will take place in the wake of an unpopular war.

None of this makes her a shoo-in for black or female voters, but it does give her campaign a currency that her challengers will be hard-pushed to rival. An endorsement or attack from Moseley-Braun, if she bows out, could prove crucial if the race is tight, giving her the leverage to secure more liberal stances on economic and foreign policy issues.

But such scenarios are a long way off. So far polls show she has greater name-recognition than Vermont governor Howard Dean, who is coming second (Senator Bob Kerry is currently the front-runner). And she is a far less divisive figure than both Joseph Lieberman, and Al Sharpton, the other black candidate.

With the primaries for the 2004 election more than a year away, she must now concentrate simply on staying in the race and making her candidacy plausible.

"She is going to have to do a lot to establish name recognition across the country. I think she is well known in the black community but not outside. She's going to have to have a significant amount of money if she is going to be viable, and I don't think she can raise a lot of money," says Ron Walters, who teaches political science at the University of Maryland.

It is a far cry from the ebullient days of her 1992 election to the Senate. The newly-elected president, Bill Clinton, had promised an administration that looked like America, and Moseley-Braun was the first person who represented that diversity. Suddenly it was the year of the woman. Americans had elected a then record of six women to the Senate, and Moseley-Braun was front-page news. She said she was standing against men who "still don't get it". There was no problem with name recognition then, but with her unique status came the burden of responsibility and expectation.

"She practically had sainthood conferred on her after that election," says David Axelrod, a media consultant who worked on Moseley-Braun's 1992 campaign. "When she turned out to have human flaws it was disappointing to a lot of people who had already canonised her, and that disappointment has not abated."

From the outset she was keen to temper any unrealistic expectations. "Being the first anything is not my fault," she said on her inauguration day. "What I do have something to do with is my performance in office."

But her giant-killing narrative against both personal and political adversity left the nation heavily invested in her in a way that few, if any, could live up to.

She was born on Chicago's south side, to a mother who was a hospital technician and a policeman father who played jazz piano with Theolonious Monk and John Coltrane. After her parents divorced, she spent her teens raising her three younger siblings in a neighbourhood so rough it was nicknamed "Bucket of Blood".

She graduated from Chicago law school, where she met her future husband, Michael Braun. The marriage, a rare interracial union at the time, lasted 13 years and produced a son, Matthew. She began her political career as a local state senator and started the long march through the mire of Chicago politics before bursting on to the national stage.

But if her performance in national politics was laudable, her reputation outside was lamentable. Before she was even sworn-in she was embroiled in scandal. From then on she would be marked by a mixture of poor judgment, aggressive management, sloppy accounting and lavish tastes. She went through four chiefs of staffs and three press secretaries in four years. But ironically, given the advances she had both made and represented for women, the man in her life was her greatest liability.

Kgosie Matthews, a British citizen of African descent from whom she since separated, was accused of sexually harassing campaign workers. It was through Matthews, who had a PR contract with the Nigerian government, that Moseley-Braun developed close ties to brutal Nigerian dictator, General Sani Abacha, which would later tarnish her reputation.

By the time her campaign was over, she owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet still managed to buy a new Jeep, move into an expensive apartment and go on holiday to South Africa with Matthews.

Moseley-Braun believed there was a racist edge to the criticisms that would not have been applied to a white male. Taken together, she said of the criticisms, they tell the story of the "lazy shiftless, welfare mother" who cannot control money or the men in her life.

But the whiff of scandal stuck. When a rightwing abortionist stood against her in a state that had not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1978, she ought to have defeated him easily. But she found herself running against odds she could not beat. "Anybody with a pulse would beat her now," said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg at the time. "She has gone from a political outsider to just another politician - and one with some negative personal baggage to boot."

It is not so much name recognition she now worries about but name recollection. That voters will remember the defeated Moseley-Braun of 1998 rather than the determined figure of 1992. "I believe that Americans are prepared to think outside the box and elect a person who is female and African-American, a person who does not fit the mould that we have resorted to for the last 200 years," she says.

It seems unlikely. But not much more unlikely than anything else she has achieved thus far.

The following correction appeared in the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, Thursday March 6 2003

An article about Carol Moseley-Braun, "the woman who wants to be president", March 3, contained the statement, "Senator Bob Kerry is currently the front-runner" for the Democratic presidential nomination. Bob Kerrey (the correct spelling), when he was a senator for Nebraska, unsuccessfully contested the Democratic primaries in 1992. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is the person to whom we meant to refer.

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