Shouldn’t we pause to take note of the rare convergence that has unfolded in the Democrats’ “early bird” contest for president? At this moment, the two hot candidates staring down each other–maybe glaring enviously–are a woman and an African-American. With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as frontrunners, America has never been here before. To sharpen the point, throw in Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor who also announced last weekend, as the first Mexican-American to make a serious run for the White House.

I don’t want to over-analyze the meaning, but surely it says something promising–even audacious–about the possible state of the union. The coming political season at least offers extreme novelty. Race and gender are both going to be on the ballot in nominating primaries, if only as the subtext, and neither is automatically assumed to be a fatal burden. Intolerance has not exactly disappeared from American life, but this allows us to imagine that another barrier to power–an obstacle deeply grounded in prejudice–might be ripe for obsolescence.

Many young people probably regard this as obvious and unremarkable. Those of us who have reached a certain age reflect in awe at the strange patterns that lead eventually to historic change.

The first presidential contest I saw up close as a young reporter turned on this question: Can the American republic survive with a Roman Catholic president? That was 1960 and I was working in a very Republican town where many voters saw John F. Kennedy as the agent of the pope. Local evangelical preachers told them so from the pulpit, Sunday after Sunday. But the Catholics in town–good Republicans too–were shocked by the open bigotry around them. They didn’t talk about it much, but afterwards confided they had crossed party lines and cast a discreet vote for religious equality.

Sometimes, the early “stars” in Democratic contests lose their glow and voters gravitate to other candidates espousing other issues. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have numerous assets and handicaps in addition to their glamour, race and gender. So if they do lose, it won’t necessarily mean intolerance has triumphed again. If Democrats wind up choosing another white guy–who knows–this too might be a sign of maturity.