America has had 43 white male presidents. In 2008, is the country ready to elect a woman or a person of color? The answer is yes.

Just the fact that three non-traditional candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson — are serious contenders for the Democratic nomination shows how quickly the landscape is shifting. Even more striking: All three are treating their gender or race as an asset, not a drawback, and the numbers tell why.

The United States is now one-third non-white, and in four states — including California and Texas — whites are in the minority. Moreover, women outnumber men and vote more often. Last fall, white males comprised only 39 percent of the electorate. So why should 100 percent of our presidents come from that one group?

America already trails far behind the rest of the world when it comes to political diversity. Iceland elected the first female head of state in 1980. India and Israel, Great Britain and the Philippines, have all been run by women. Angela Merkel is chancellor of Germany and Segolene Royal is running for president of France.

Even in the United States, the stereotypes of power have changed dramatically. In the House, Nancy Pelosi now serves as the first female Speaker of the House, and new Democratic committee chairmen include such influential blacks as Charles Rangel at Ways and Means and John Conyers at Judiciary. Silvestre Reyes, a Latino from Texas, heads the Intelligence Committee.

In the Senate, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine are leading Republican opposition to President Bush’s war strategy. America has not had a white male Secretary of State in over a decade. Before her retirement, Sandra Day O’Connor was the most important jurist in the country.

If anything, American culture has moved faster than politics to embrace non-traditional heroes. Tiger and Oprah need only one name. Eight of the 20 actors receiving Oscar nominations this year are people of color, and three of the four favorites are black: Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson. Both Super Bowl coaches, Lovie Smith of the Bears and Tony Dungy of the Colts, are also African-American.

If the new face of America makes it possible for Sen. Clinton to emphasize her gender instead of hiding it, her calculation is also based on hard facts. Democrats simply cannot win national elections without a distinct edge among female voters. Hillary’s husband, Bill, won the female vote by 16 points in 1996, but by 2004, John Kerry’s margin had shrunk to three points.

Last fall, Democrats restored the gender gap to 12 points — a big reason for their victory — and Hillary could maintain that advantage. In the latest ABC/Washington Post survey, her favorable rating among women was 59 percent (compared to 48 percent among men), and half of all female Democrats supported her candidacy (fewer than one in three males did).

These numbers lead Hillary’s pollster, Mark Penn, to declare, “Women constitute a huge ‘X’ factor in this upcoming election,” and her campaign is aimed directly at raising the comfort level of female voters. Her announcement video was shot in a living room, accented by soft lights and flowered pillows, and she talked about her campaign as a “conversation” with America, while avoiding macho images like battle or crusade.

“So let’s talk. Let’s chat,” she said. Can you imagine any male candidate using that language? And in case you forgot her parental status, right after her announcement she was promoting children’s health at a community center conveniently named for two Manhattan neighborhoods, Chelsea and Clinton.

As Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutler told the Washington Post: “If you’re a mother or a grandmother, then you have an automatic connection with an enormous cross section of society.”

But the strategy goes beyond “let’s chat.” Hillary knows she has a 44 percent disapproval rating, that she’s seen as a hardcore liberal when only one in five voters last fall accepted that label. So she’s adapting the classic female persona of conciliator and compromiser. No hard edges. No ideological extremes. As she told Brian Williams on NBC, she was born into “a middle-class family, in the middle of America, in the middle of the last century.” Get it?

Obama and Richardson, both children of mixed race couples, are taking a similar approach, depicting themselves as bridges between cultures, as seekers of common ground. Of course, the 44th president could still turn out to be another white male. But that outcome is less likely than at any time in our history.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.