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What are presidential hopefuls giving voters: nuance or deception?

The conventional thinking is that presidential candidates must use the primaries to satisfy their party’s base to win the nomination. Then they usually use the general election campaign to make the sort of bold moves that can broaden their appeal.

But with primaries being held earlier and everything these days being rush, rush, rush, presidential hopefuls this time around are speeding up the process. They seem to be using the primaries to reach beyond their comfort zones to bring in new voters.

The result is something akin to a Sister Souljah moment. Remember when Bill Clinton was highly critical of racially incendiary remarks made by a black female rapper? Many observers contended that Clinton, who had already wrapped up the nomination, was trying to convince white voters that he shared their sensibilities.

Now, some White House contenders may be pursuing a similar strategy – even if it is before the first primary votes are cast or the first caucus held. The only downside may be that it risks alienating the base.

• In a recent interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Sen. Barack Obama implied that he didn’t think his own daughters should benefit from affirmative action but rather “should probably be treated by any (college) admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged.”

And in comments that might concern some African-Americans, Obama also said that he hoped that “if we make good decisions and we invest in early childhood education,” affirmative action could become “a diminishing tool for us to achieve racial equality in this society.”

• According to a CNN report, Sen. Hillary Clinton – once considered a feminist icon – is catching grief from some feminists who think she’s trying too hard to be macho. While acknowledging that Clinton still enjoys strong support from women, CNN’s Carol Costello interviewed former “Hillaristas” who are disillusioned over what they consider the candidate’s “mantle of political masculinity.”

One feminist author insisted that “Hillary has tried too hard to be more like a man.”

• New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson insists that he supports comprehensive immigration reform. And yet he constantly reminds voters that he was one of the first border governors to declare a state of emergency because of illegal immigration.

As the first Hispanic to launch a credible run at the White House, Richardson raised eyebrows of fellow Hispanics when he blasted as inappropriate something as benign as a Spanish translation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But he didn’t speak out against a dumb and divisive question during a CNN debate about whether English should be the country’s official language. Other Democrats objected, but Richardson remained mute.

• Likewise, while former Gov. Mitt Romney still enjoys enormous support from many of his fellow Mormons, there is evidence that some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are disillusioned with the way he has handled questions about his religion.

According to a story in the New York Times, some think he has gone too far in glossing over the differences between what Mormons believe and other denominations interpret.

What’s going on here? There are a couple of possibilities, and one is much more encouraging than the other.

Perhaps these candidates really believe what they’re saying, and what we’re seeing are examples of something we don’t see enough of in politics today: nuance.

It’s the kind of thoughtful analysis that says one can support progress for African-Americans and yet be uneasy about affirmative action, or that one can support giving legal status to illegal immigrants but still be willing to send the National Guard to patrol the border.

If that’s really what this is, then terrific. We could use more of it. We learn a lot about what candidates are made of when they take a break from battling their enemies and duke it out with their friends.

But what if this is just for show? What if these responses are the results of focus groups, political calculations and polling data?

That would mean that the whole idea isn’t to challenge the base or stake out a middle ground, but to manipulate voters into thinking they’re buying one thing when they’re really buying another.

That would amount to outright deception, and that’s never a good way to begin a relationship with someone who wants to be our chief executive for the next four years and possibly the next eight.

So which is it? Nuance or deception? Are these folks being sincere or not? Hopefully, voters and the media will figure that out before the first ballots are cast.

More from Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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