Will America elect black president?


Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., shakes hands at a rally Saturday in Nashua, N.H.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Ray Ballentine was waiting for a sign to throw his support to Barack Obama. And when Obama coasted to victory in Iowa's caucuses, there it was - evidence that the senator had the broad racial appeal to get to the White House.

"I did have some reservations before, but he certainly got my vote now,'' Ballentine said, eating a brisket and roast turkey salad with hush puppies at The Q Shack, a barbecue joint in Raleigh, N.C. "I was sort of undecided, but I feel like he can win the presidency.''

Obama's convincing win in Thursday's caucuses in Iowa - a state with just a smattering of minority voters - demonstrated the Illinois senator's support crosses racial lines and bolstered the notion that America is receptive to electing its first black president.

Whether Obama's appeal stretches beyond the farm fields of Iowa will become clear over the next month as the freshman senator faces a series of tests on different political terrain - beginning with Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, another overwhelmingly white state.

But for Ballentine, who had been wavering between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama, Iowa was a tipping point. Like many black voters, he says, he was looking for proof that Obama could garner white support. Yet he wonders if the rest of the nation is as willing as Iowa to embrace the idea of a black president.

"I'm not really sure if they're ready, you know,'' he said. "I think it's time. He's speaking about change, and certainly that would be a change for this country. A change for the world.''

Polls have indicated the vast majority of Americans say they would support a black candidate seeking the White House. A Gallup survey conducted in early 2007 found only 6 percent of men and 5 percent of women said they would not vote for a black presidential candidate - a seismic political shift from 50 years ago when more than half those surveyed felt that way.

Though Obama's win captured headlines and gave his campaign fresh credibility, he is not the first black candidate to triumph in a Democratic presidential contest.

In 1988, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, making his second bid for the White House, piled up Democratic primary wins in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and the District of Columbia along with caucus victories in South Carolina and Michigan.

But Obama's roots and resume - as well as his campaign - are unlike other black candidates who've run for president. The son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas, Obama was just a child during the dawn of the civil rights movement, grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and has not made race the centerpiece of his candidacy.

"Obama is running in a way that a lot of white voters feel very sympathetic,'' said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist. "He doesn't make them feel guilty. He's not running a Jesse Jackson campaign or an Al Sharpton campaign. He's positioned himself to be a candidate who happens to be black, rather than a black candidate.''

In a far different way, the Republicans have their own presidential candidate with an unusual back story: Mike Huckabee, who won the GOP caucuses in Iowa with heavy support from Christian evangelicals, is an ordained Baptist preacher.

But it's Huckabee's years as an Arkansas governor, not his time in the pulpit that have taken him this far, said David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank. "If he had been a minister and never a governor, especially a governor who was re-elected ... he wouldn't be in this situation,'' he says.

For some voters watching Obama, his campaign - and his Iowa success - are simply reflections of changing times.

"America's becoming more open-minded,'' said Mark Jambretz, a 36-year-old sales director at an Internet company in San Francisco. "I as a Republican can say that, and we need to open our eyes to people representing all ethnicities.''

Still, he said he could envision some "radical groups'' taking violent steps against a black candidate or president.

That also worries Ballentine, the 53-year-old North Carolina electric utility field technician.

"I think he will certainly need to beef up his security, because I think there's these wackos that will go to any extent to make sure he doesn't win,'' he said. "It's sad to say that, but I think it's a possibility. Some people just don't want to see that happen.''

Obama received Secret Service protection last spring - the earliest ever for any presidential candidate. He acknowledged at the time that some of the threats against him were racially motivated.

Some voters, though, say Obama's race may not even be that much of a factor in his campaign.

"I think that America wants a lot of change. I don't necessarily know if it matters that he's black or not - just that they want something different,'' said John Beckner, while waiting for a table with his daughters outside Matt's Big Breakfast, a diner in the shadow of downtown Phoenix.

Beckner, a 34-year-old systems engineer who is white and married to a black woman, said he knows not all Americans will be able to look beyond Obama's race. "I'm sure he's going to alienate some people that just aren't ready for that, or think he has special interests or a minority agenda,'' he said. "... But the thirst for change is so strong ... that would probably be enough to get him elected.''

Standing nearby with her husband and son, Nancy Bergkamp said it's experience that counts and Obama doesn't have it.

"He's out there, 'Oh yeah, let's change, let's do something different and all that.' But I think he's kind of a flash in the pan at this point. I think he's very unproven,'' said Bergkamp, 51, a registered Republican. "The fact that he's black is somewhat of an afterthought. Maybe I'm naive, but I would like to think we're beyond that.''

Maxine Siegler, a 54-year-old flight attendant from Miami, also said while Obama's victory is a good sign that the nation is ready to elect a black president, "I don't think this particular African-American is up for the job. I think we have a mess, somebody has got to fix it but I don't think he's the right person.''

Collette Lease, 32, an education assistant from Minneapolis, has reservations, too. While she said she's excited a black candidate has the chance to take the White House, she's not sold on Obama.

"He gives a great speech, but just because you can give a great speech doesn't mean you can run the country,'' she said.

Others, though, say Obama's candidacy is groundbreaking and a sign that America is changing - even in the South.

"We can all go back to our history books and a couple of years ago something like this would never have happened,'' said JaQuinda Harkness, a 20-year-old College of Charleston student strolling during lunch hour in the South Carolina city's historic district. "For this to be happening this year, this century and for me to living in it is amazing.''

Sivi Bobbitt, a 35-year-old graduate student at Clark Atlanta University, is enthused too and believes Obama "wants the country to be the melting pot it's supposed to be.''

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