WASHINGTON -- With no black candidate left in the Democratic presidential race, Mississippi state Rep. George Flaggs wasted no time in endorsing Bill Clinton.
"Clinton is a Southerner. . . . He understands our needs. We can relate to him better," said Mr. Flaggs, who supported L. Douglas Wilder until the Virginia governor unexpectedly dropped out of the race Wednesday.
Like many black politicians in the South, Mr. Flaggs knows and likes the Arkansas governor's record on issues of concern to minorities. That record, and the personal relationships Mr. Clinton has cultivated over the years with black leaders outside Arkansas, give him an apparent lead in garnering support that might have gone to Mr. Wilder.
But whether the endorsements will translate into big vote totals remains to be seen. Many black voters don't know Mr. Clinton any better than the other candidates, and not all black opinion leaders are convinced that he's their man.
"Once they begin to look at Bill Clinton closely, they'll find a real conservative candidate, and it's an open question whether or not they'll embrace him," contended Ronald Walters, chairman of the political science department at Howard University and a longtime associate of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Mr. Walters believes some of the endorsements are attributable more to Clinton bandwagon fever than to affection for his politics. He said the positions of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin "comport most to those in the black community" and speculated that the Iowan "can make some inroads" if he can put together a strong organization in the South.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey also is pursuing the black vote, as are the two candidates generally considered long shots to win the nomination: former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas and former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.
The Kerrey, Clinton and Harkin campaigns are competing intensely in Maryland for black political support, but there, as in Southern states, Mr. Clinton is claiming victory. His supporters in Prince George's County say they have signed up most black state legislators from the county and at least one black county council member.
The picture isn't as clear in Baltimore, where Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, is remaining neutral.
The competition for black support springs from the knowledge that it could play a crucial role in the March primaries in Maryland and in Southern states where the black population is substantial. But the candidate who wins the most black support still might be disappointed if the turnout is low, as some analysts believe it will be, partly because there is no black candidate in the race for the first time since 1980.
"It doesn't seem to me, with the current field of Democratic candidates, black turnout is going to be all that high," said Ruy Teixeira, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a political affairs specialist.
Another factor in gauging the black vote is Mr. Jackson's role. Although not running this year, he is trying to prevent an endorsement stampede by black leaders.
"He wields considerable influence," said Georgia state Sen. Gene P. Walker. "Clearly, his influence is evident in the fact that a number of black leaders have not endorsed candidates at this point."
Mr. Jackson did not return a phone call from The Sun.
But supporters of Mr. Clinton are doing their best to paint him as the obvious choice for blacks because of what he's done as governor, and because Senators Harkin and Kerrey come from states with small black populations.
"Historically, Clinton has gotten overwhelming support from black voters in the state," said Diane D. Blair, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, who has taken leave to work for the Clinton campaign. "I'm talking 90, 95 percent of the black vote."
Loretta Lever, economic development regional coordinator in Little Rock, Ark., for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, notes that when her office drafted legislation requiring the state to make 10 percent of its purchases from minority contractors, Mr. Clinton quickly supported the bill. It passed last year.
"He has been available to talk to the minority community regarding any issues that we may have concerns on," Ms. Lever said. She credits him with making numerous appointments of blacks to top state jobs.
Mr. Clinton has made black friends outside the state through activities in such groups as the Democratic Leadership Council, the Education Commission of the States, and the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission. Rep. Mike Espy, D-Miss., who is black, sponsored the legislation that created the development commission.
Although he wouldn't formally endorse Mr. Clinton last week, Mr. Espy said he is "very impressed with his credentials." He predicted that black voters would be attracted to the governor's candidacy.
When Mr. Clinton arrived at a reception at the State House in Annapolis last week, he embraced Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, and called him "my longtime friend and protector."
Mr. Rawlings, who had endorsed Mr. Clinton before Mr. Wilder got out of the race, said the governor had appointed him several years ago to a key committee on the Education Commission of the States.
"On educational issues, he's been a strong leader," said Mr. Rawlings, a delegate for Mr. Jackson in 1984 and 1988.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., also admires Mr. Clinton, although he won't make an endorsement just yet. A spokesman said the congressman "is not in a rush."
Mr. Walker, the Georgia state senator, said he hopes black leaders in the state will study the candidates and then "arrive at as near a consensus as we can" before the primary. The legislature is expected to schedule it March 3, the same day as Maryland's.