Les Payne

is a columnist for Newsday

The emergence of Barack Obama as presumptive nominee is considered a credit to blacks; however, it is more a victory for the Democratic Party, and should he win in November, it might prove to be a triumph for the entire nation.

The Illinois senator is indeed part of the continuum of blacks' struggle to gain political empowerment as U.S. citizens. He arrived on the shoulders of preceding black presidential candidates; however, he stands now on the platform of preceding Democratic nominees.

Whites assess Obama in the singularity of his potential as a president. Blacks measure him in the duality of this same promise as well as of his potential to fulfill a dream deferred.

It's a curious burden for a man born to a white mother from Kansas and a Kenyan father, unconditioned by the racism of this ex-slave republic.

Born in 1961, Obama has no experience growing up from the cradle black in America. What he knows, he has read, or experienced as a young man adrift, or picked up in anecdotes from his wife, Michelle, and her relatives, buddies, pastors, and the poor on the streets he helped organize.

Although prior candidates ran on fringe tickets, it was Shirley Chisholm's 1972 run as a Democrat that washed blacks into the mainstream presidential sweepstakes. A dozen years later, the Rev. Jesse Jackson staged an issues-based campaign, and in '88 he garnered an impressive 1,200 delegates to bargain with at the Democratic convention.

A lily-white hush fell over the landscape, save for trot-outs by black candidates either twisted or comedic - until 20 years later, when Obama fielded his brilliant campaign.

The Democrats have just completed a historic primary that winnowed down to two a column of eight hopefuls, and they included a white woman, a Hispanic, a genuine radical in Dennis Kucinich - with Obama as victor.

Already the media are polling to discover: Will America elect a black president?

The question seems disingenuous unless, of course, one concedes that only race matters with white American voters. Indeed, the minute it's suggested that America is remotely given to racism, say by a Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the offender is hauled in by the thought police and punished.

The Clintons (who previously enjoyed 80-plus percent support from black voters) tried mightily to dismiss Obama by confining him to a race box. Despite this, the cagey politician convinced primary voters that, though black, he was not running as a stereotype to be manipulated but as an individual to be taken seriously.

The key polling question should be: Will Americans select Obama over John McCain?

As an American patriot hoping to achieve McCain's age one day, I consider the Arizona senator the clearest sign yet that the stars are aligning themselves against the Iraq war and ignominy. In this time of turmoil, the media should keep the faith with voters and offer neither candidate a favored ride to the Oval Office.

Just as we got dragged into the Iraq war because of a squeamishness about questioning White House authority after the 9/11 attacks, some consider challenging the insipid former POW as disrespectful.

Well, I am a fellow Vietnam veteran who did not endure McCain's 5 1/2 years in the hands of the North Vietnamese. But although such brutal treatment is the stuff of heroism, such behavior modification is not remotely acceptable preparation for the president of this superpower nation.

Already, we've seen McCain switch key positions and submit himself to the will of the Bush administration as if to his North Vietnamese captors. Where once he opposed the tax breaks for the wealthy, he now supports permanent entrenchment.

Even on the litmus-test issue of torturing prisoners of war, McCain has swooned over to the waterboarding Bush-camp commanders.

Perhaps McCain believes that should he be elected, he could just take it all back. By then it would likely be too late.