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Primary tiptoes on racial divide

Demographics and discourse push race into today's S.C. vote.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published January 26, 2008

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama speaks to a mostly black crowd at a gym in Sumter, S.C. New polls show support for Obama and Hillary breaking starkly across racial lines as they go into today's election, with Clinton having lost most of the black support she had two months ago.
[AP photo]
[AP photo]
President Bill Clinton has said Sen. Barack Obama has "enormous ability" and pledged to help him if he wins, but says "... Hillary would be a better president. I think she's more electable for a variety of reasons."

SUMTER, S.C. - Manufacturing jobs have been scooting out the door like startled cats and the prospects, for the moment, don't look good. The schools aren't what many folks would like, gas prices keep rising and considering Iraq, the military isn't quite so attractive to the young folks.

So when Illinois Sen. Barack Obama came down here, to the poor side of a poor town in a poor state, peddling hope and change, it sounded pretty good to Jarren Johnson.

And when Obama's top rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and her husband, the former president, started in about how you can't pay the rent with hope, and how his vision for a unified America was too naive, and how voting for him would be to "roll the dice," it sounded pretty bad.

"This is a Christian-based town. We live off faith and hope," said Johnson, 23, who heard Obama speak this week to a mostly black crowd at a gym in Sumter's shopworn south side. "The economy's jacked up, that's all we got. All the jobs have gone overseas."

Alana Carter, 34, a petite mother of two with an XXL voice, added that it appeared President Clinton lately was trying to boost his wife by dishing on Obama, insisting Obama isn't ready to be president.

She wasn't buying it. "Everything he's been saying to me is hope. We need a vision."

Obama has always cast himself not as a black candidate, but as a candidate who happens to be black. And for most of the hard-fought campaign for today's Democratic primary in South Carolina, the first with a significant black electorate, race had not been much of an issue.

But it has always been a reality, and angry questions have flared amid a flurry of Clinton attacks and Obama counterattacks in the final week of the campaign. New polls show support for Clinton and Obama breaking starkly across racial lines as they go into today's election, with Clinton having lost most of the black support she had two months ago.

Some Democratic leaders say they worry about the consequences for their party in November if this racial divide between Clinton and Obama persists beyond South Carolina, particularly if Clinton is the nominee.

African-Americans are crucial to the Democratic coalition, and alienating even a fraction of them could sink her in the general election.

Jack Bass, an expert in Southern politics at the College of Charleston, said he has been surprised by the Clintons' aggressive tone. He and other analysts question the wisdom of it.

"Black voters, and blacks in general, will react differently than most whites to what they perceive as slights, because they are looking at it from a different historical perspective," Bass said.

"I'm sure a lot of thought went into that in the Clinton campaign. But it seems to me that whatever value it has on the tactical situation, I think the campaign would have been very careful, strategically, in terms of what impact it might have on black voter attitudes later, primarily in regard to turnout."

No one's accusing the Clinton camp of racism. But fairly or not, many black voters and political leaders here say they take the assaults on Obama personally. That by labeling the nation's top black political leader as unfit for the White House, the Clintons are challenging the notion that any African-American is ready to lead the country.

* * *

At a community center in rural Kingstree, S.C., packed mostly with elderly and middle-age black voters, a black man who identified himself as a local pastor stood up and told President Clinton on Wednesday night that Obama can't win because "America is not ready for a black" president. "I hope y'all hear what I'm saying," he said. Many clapped.

Clinton told him he hopes he's wrong. He said Obama has "enormous ability" and pledged to help him if he wins.

But, Clinton went on, "I just believe Hillary would be a better president. I think she's more electable for a variety of reasons. We're trying to set up a deal here in America where nobody votes against you because of your race or your gender. But since this is the first time. ... I get why it's hard to move past the first time."

That's just the kind of talk that gets state Rep. Todd Rutherford steamed.

"We are not overly sensitive," said Rutherford, 37, a black Democrat and Obama supporter who represents Columbia, the state capital. "But I think we are more capable of recognizing the subtle tactics that people use to tear African-Americans down. ...

"Now to watch someone we considered the first black president use the same tactics. ..."

He stopped and was quiet for a moment. "I can't believe I'm saying something bad about Bill Clinton. But I can't believe Bill Clinton is saying something bad about Barack Obama."

* * *

It would be simplistic to ascribe the depth of Obama's support among black voters here solely to the color of his skin; he had to earn it. As recently as November, polls showed Clinton with the support of about half of likely black voters, and that didn't change until Obama proved in Iowa that white people would vote for him.

Robert Taylor of Sumter, who heard Obama speak last week, said he had planned to vote for Clinton, but recently was persuaded that Obama could best unite the nation.

"He's not perfect, but he has the ability to work that change," explained Taylor, 54, who served in the Marines and the Navy.

But even as he insisted voters should be blind to color or gender, Taylor admitted he thought of his great-grandparents. They were slaves, and he imagined how they would have voted.

"It would be Obama," Taylor said. "It would be the fulfillment of a dream. They'd be saying, 'I can't believe it.'"

* * *

This is the quandary Clinton is facing, not just in South Carolina, but in a Democratic Party where African-Americans matter: How best to run against a well-organized, well-funded and charismatic black candidate who whipped you in Iowa, came close in New Hampshire and Nevada, and leads in South Carolina?

The political playbook is clear: Hit him where it hurts. The racial dynamic is less so.

"Certainly, he's not just another candidate," Bass said. "What it is, she's treating him as just another candidate. It's not a matter of racial politics, it's a matter of reality -he's going to get a strong identification among black voters."

Even with the late unpleasantness, the Democratic campaign has been relatively mild.

Mindful, perhaps, of the nostalgia for the Clinton years that many Democrats remember, particularly black Democrats, Obama has refrained from reminding voters of the scandals that plagued his presidency.

Instead, he has criticized Sen. Clinton for changing her position on the war in Iraq, from for to against, and for Senate sins like voting to make it harder to declare bankruptcy, then saying she hoped the bill wouldn't pass.

"See, that's Washington talk," Obama told several hundred people, most of them black, at a high school in Beaufort on Thursday night. "That's part of the change that I want to bring about."

The Clintons, meanwhile, have hammered at a weakness in Obama's campaign: style over substance. Obama brings the crowds to their feet with rhetoric that is lofty but vague, sparse on details about how he plans to deliver energy independence, health insurance for everyone, more jobs, better schools.

The loudest howls from Team Obama followed a radio ad running across South Carolina on Wednesday and Thursday that clearly took his comments about the Republican Party out of context, making him appear laudatory of policies that most Democrats detest. But even that wasn't "beyond the pale," said Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House and South Carolina's most prominent black politician. "These are the kind of tactics that will be used in November. You might as well get used to it here in January."

But Clyburn, who remains neutral in the race, publicly advised President Clinton to "chill out."

Black voters account for about half the electorate in South Carolina's Democratic primary, enough to offset what polls show is Obama's dismal support among white voters here.

Rutherford, the state House member from Columbia, said Obama won't have that cover in most of the 22 states that hold primaries on Feb. 5.

"What happens when you get to a state without a Jim Clyburn?" he said. "What happens when no one says, 'Wait a minute?'"

Wes Allison can be reached at or 202 463-0577. Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

S.C. primary too close to call

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Today's Democratic primary in South Carolina appears too close to call, as the three candidates - New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards - make their final appeals in person and on TV advertisements today.

Black voters will make up about half the electorate today, and recent polls show Obama with a clear lead among them.

To help, Clinton has enlisted the support of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who is still barnstorming the state, and she has shipped in a handful of African-American luminaries, including Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami; Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus; and David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York City.

The latest Clemson University Palmetto Poll, released late Thursday, gave Obama a firm but not commanding lead over Clinton, 27 percent to 20 percent. Edwards, who was born in Seneca, S.C., was closing the gap with 17 percent.

But the poll also found that a whopping 36 percent of likely Democratic voters remained undecided, more than enough to push the outcome in almost any direction. A new Mason-Dixon poll, commissioned on behalf of MSNBC and McClatchy Newspapers, gave Obama an 8-point lead over Clinton, 38 percent to 30 percent.

That poll gave Edwards just 19 percent, with 13 percent of voters undecided.

The state's Republican primary was Jan. 20. Arizona Sen. John McCain won.

- Wes Allison, Times staff writer

[Last modified January 25, 2008, 23:59:59]

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