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A clear winner: Indians

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Winds of change are picking up force. The last men standing, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, are advocates for Indian rights, campaigning with ease and aptitude in Indian country. Record numbers of new, young and minority voters may favor Obama, but McCain's long relationship with Indian people sets the stage for an unprecedented focus on this critical voting bloc. American Indian voters, eager to shed a mistaken image of powerlessness, will play an important role in selecting the next president of the United States.

The candidates couldn't be more different. McCain, 71, is a white veteran of Congress and the Navy who vows to continue the United States' war on terror. He would be the oldest first-term president ever elected. Obama, 46, is the black junior senator from Illinois who wants to end the war in Iraq. He would become the first minority to win the presidency. About the only similarity shared by these presumptive presidential nominees is their promise to usher in change for America. To those in Indian country, however, the candidates share an important quality: a stated commitment to elevate the status of Indian affairs in their respective administrations.

Obama spoke about the magnitude of treaty commitments and promised to appoint a senior American Indian policy adviser in a cabinet-level position in his White House. McCain, a two-time chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, reminded Native leaders of his record helping push legislation dealing with Indian issues. Tribal leaders, superdelegates and voters who were courted throughout the Democratic Party's nomination process are now looking forward to hearing the candidates' substantive plans for implementing these promises.

Obama won the support of the majority of Indian voters in the South Dakota and Montana primaries, his campaign bolstered by a well-organized event at Crow Agency. To build support among American Indians for the general election, Obama must remember that many nations comprise Indian country, and plan his messages and meetings accordingly. Tribal governments and reservations are diverse and complex, something his opponent knows from experience.

So far, the Native leaders advising the Obama campaign have served him well, making sure the candidate does not take a ''one size fits all'' approach on Indian issues. Acknowledging and understanding the differences in the philosophies and geographies of tribes throughout the country will help Obama fulfill his promises should he become the next president.

McCain's record on Indian affairs is noteworthy. As SCIA chairman, he sponsored or co-sponsored several bills in support of Indian programs and legislation. In 2005, he proposed controversial amendments to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act increasing federal regulation and curb off-reservation gaming. The bill, tribal leaders said, relied on federal authority and ignored laws made by tribal governments.

Newly revised Section 20 regulations borne of this movement have severely limited tribes' abilities to participate in off-reservation gaming. It will be tough for McCain to overcome the outrage many tribal leaders feel as a result of this process. Also, he will need to reconcile his support for continuing the costly Iraq war while funding for Indian programs at home continues to plummet.

There is much ''purple'' ground in Indian country, areas where support for Republicans and Democrats is evenly divided. In this election, candidates' attention to issues is paramount. If they want Indian votes, they must devote themselves to issues which affect them.