A tight race for black support

Clinton, Obama visit Ala. using civil rights as backdrop to get votes

March 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Lewis, whose political career grew out of the civil rights movement, had longed for the day he could vote for someone he thought could become the nation's first black president. So when Sen. Barack Obama entered the race, he was on the cusp of declaring his support.

Until Bill Clinton called.

Now, Lewis said, he is agonizing over whether to choose Obama, whom he once described as "the future of the Democratic Party," or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"One day I lean one way; the next day I lean another way," said Lewis, a Georgia Democrat. "Sometimes, you have to have what I call an executive session with yourself, a come-to-Jesus meeting, and somehow, some way, we will all have to make a decision."

In the opening stretch of the 2008 Democratic presidential contest, Clinton, Obama and John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, are embroiled in what party officials believe is one of the most competitive scrambles for black supporters since the Voting Rights Act was passed four decades ago.

The chief rivals will be in Alabama today when the Clintons and Obama commemorate the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of activists - Lewis among them - crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge during a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Rep. Artur Davis, an Alabama Democrat, invited Obama to deliver the keynote address at the historic Brown Chapel today. After Obama agreed, Davis said, Hillary Clinton suddenly accepted an invitation to speak at a church down the street. Two days ago, Bill Clinton said he would join his wife in Selma, the first time since she formally entered the race that he has been called on to give her a hand.

"Her timing speaks for itself," said Davis, who supports Obama.

Today's events will be the first time for Hillary Clinton and Obama to share campaign turf. Aides to Clinton dismissed suggestions that they were following Obama, but members of Congress traveling to Selma said they were encouraged by her allies to attend her speech, not his.

Edwards declined an invitation. He plans to be in California today to deliver a speech - about Selma and civil rights - at the University of California, Berkeley.

Black voters are a crucial component of the Democratic electorate. In 2004, despite intensive efforts by President Bush to break the Democratic dominance, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts won about 89 percent of the black vote.

In contested primaries, particularly in South Carolina, black support could be vital to the Democratic nominee. About 50 percent of the primary voters in South Carolina are black, and the state is fourth in line on the nominating calendar.

Alabama, where about 60 percent of the primary voters are black, is making plans to move its contest to Feb. 2. And at least 16 states are considering voting Feb. 5, including Florida, California, Illinois, New York and Texas, all states where black voters could hold considerable sway.

But the weekend events in Alabama also offer a window into a broader struggle among the candidates to associate themselves with the legacy of the civil rights movement in a way that could help them appeal not only to blacks but also to white Democratic voters who are proud of their party's role in that struggle.

For Hillary Clinton, the Selma appearance could be an early test of her ability to connect with black audiences in the way her husband has, and of Bill Clinton's ability to transfer his political aura to his wife.

It also gives Obama a chance to show he can compete with the Clintons, both in connecting the language and themes of the civil rights movement to the politics of today, and in keeping the spotlight on himself in the middle of a head-to-head political spectacle.

"President Clinton remains popular, and Senator Clinton will benefit a lot from that, but there are a lot of African-Americans who see the possibility of this," said Maryland Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who supports Obama. "People say, `He's like my son or my grandson, and before I die, I'd like to have a chance to vote for someone who can win.'"

Clinton advisers said they were not concerned about polls showing some early signs of a tightened race for black support. They have been honing both a public message and a private political strategy to deal with what they acknowledge is the unmatchable personal appeal of Obama as a black candidate courting black voters.

"African-Americans historically align with people based on issues, not personality," said Minyon Moore, a senior Clinton adviser who, among other things, has focused on building support in the black community.

Asked how Hillary Clinton would compete for black votes with Obama, who would be the first black president, Moore said: "It's probably a proud moment for us all. But there's so much history to be made this time around - having the first woman president, having the first African-American nominee, having the first Latino nominee." The latter was a reference to Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, another Democratic candidate.

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