Public opinion polls show the two leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are a woman -- Senator Hillary Clinton -- and an African-American -- Senator Barack Obama. Observers say the Hispanic governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, also could be a strong contender. Leta Hong Fincher has more on how the American public's acceptance of diversity has evolved.
Twenty years ago, Ellen Malcolm started a political network in Washington called EMILY's List to raise money for Democratic Party women candidates. At that time, she says no one took women seriously in politics.
"Before we had a lot of women in office, I think voters didn't know what to make of a woman candidate,” says Ms. Malcolm. “They were sort of stymied; they had no reference points. What would a woman running for the Senate be like, or sound like or look like? And when they weren't used to it, they would kind of fall back on a lot of gender stereotypes."
Since then, Malcolm says voters have become much more comfortable with the idea of electing women to political office. EMILY's List is for the first time endorsing a woman -- Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton -- for president.
"I think voters now are used to seeing women run and women win and do good job in office. And I hope that new confidence in women in politics is going to make Hillary Clinton the first woman president," Malcolm says.
Public opinion polls show that Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner for president.
"I'm in, I'm in to win, and that's what I intend to do," the senator said to a gathering recently.
Viable candidates for president also include an African-American---Senator Barack Obama. He announced, "I'll be filing papers today to create a presidential exploratory committee."
And a Hispanic -- New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. "Our reputation in the world is diminished, our economy has languished, and civility and common decency in government have perished," said the governor in a prepared video.
All three of these political leaders are legitimate candidates for president.
Scott Keeter directs surveys for the Pew Research Center in Washington. "It's really a reflection of the growing diversity of the society,” says Keeter. “With the tremendous amount of immigration that's occurred in the last few decades in the United States and the growing diversity of our population, especially the younger population, people are much more comfortable with others who are not like them. And that has extended to politics as well."
Keeter says many Americans are now able to look beyond the gender or race of political candidates when evaluating their skills and leadership potential.
By the same token, observers say presidential candidates will be unable to win a general election by targeting minority voters alone.
Take the Hispanic population -- the fastest growing minority group in the United States. Stephen Hess, an elections expert at the Brookings Institution research group in Washington, says this trend does not necessarily benefit Richardson's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"As opposed to some other communities, which are much more set in their ways politically, such as the African-American community, which overwhelmingly identifies with the Democratic Party, the Hispanic community is very much up for grabs."
Similarly, Hess says there is no indication that Obama would win the African-American vote against Clinton. Opinion polls show she is popular among black communities.
"Barack Obama did not come up through the ranks as an African-American leader, as Jesse Jackson had, or another politician, Al Sharpton, where there are very strong feelings because basically they've made their mark as a leader of their own community, trying to make demands on the rest of society as a minority group,” Hess told us. “That hasn't been his route at all."
Hess says Obama has risen just as any other politician would, by representing the people of his state regardless of whether they are black or white.