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It seems to me, over the years, I’ve witnessed two political earthquakes that changed the ground rules in American politics and gave birth to new political movements.

The pictures on TV of American soldiers and refugees fleeing Saigon on the skids of helicopters said to the generation of men and women who’d fought in and grown up during World War II that America could lose the Cold War.

Our defeat in Vietnam sent a shiver of raw fear through a generation of people (who knew something about war) and that fear created a political movement that carried Ronald Reagan into the White House. We saw, first hand, how powerful that political earthquake was right here in North Carolina in 1976 when Reagan – against all odds – became the first challenger in history to defeat an incumbent president in a primary.

That political movement dominated American politics until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then communism vanished, the fear vanished, the coalition fell apart and ‘Bubba’ waltzed into the White House next election.

Today, I’m beginning to suspect – perhaps due to the war in Iraq, or demographic shifts, or both – Barack Obama may be riding the front of a wave of a third political earthquake. That when Obama says, ‘We can change America,’ he may not mean what many of us watching with tired old eyes think. It may sound to us like he’s going to change who holds power or do some routine cleaning out of corruption, but women, young people and minorities may be hearing something else entirely and that something else may be massive.

Political strategists may view Obama’s sudden mobilization of new demographic coalitions as an aberration – and that sometime between now and November the situation will right itself, the standard political rules will again apply, and all will be right with the world.

In other words, Kay Hagan running neck and neck with Elizabeth Dole – which under the old rules is like being doused with cold water – will turn out to be an anomaly and dissipate. But what if it doesn’t? What if – beneath the surface this election – there are tides running as powerful as the tides that reshaped American politics in the late 1970s or early 1990s?

Then the old rules don’t apply and Senator Dole (and every candidate) must either address the change – or risk being eaten alive by it.

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