Analysis: Race bursts into open in Clinton-Obama confrontation

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., takes the stage Monday for a union rally to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., in New York. Applauding, left, is the Rev. Clinton Miller and, right, is Eric Figueroa.

The Associated Press
Published: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

NEW YORK - Barack Obama accuses Hillary Rodham Clinton of making an "unfortunate'' remark about Martin Luther King Jr. She retorts that King's a hero to her - and no one should be thinking Obama is a new MLK.

Racial politics, quietly simmering for months, have burst into the open in the Democratic confrontation between the woman who would be the first female president and the man who would be the first black.

Will it make a difference to voters, black or white?

The first big test will be in the South Carolina primary a week from Saturday. It will be the first Democratic primary this year in a state with a substantial black population - as Michelle Obama declared during the weekend, "Ain't no black people in Iowa'' - and the first in the South.

Clinton spent part of Monday praising King, the civil rights leader who was killed in 1968. Speaking at a ceremony honoring him in New York, she said, "I remember hearing him speak when I went with my church to downtown Chicago to see and hear for myself someone who had burst through the stereotypes and the caricatures, who could not be held back by being beaten or gassed or jailed.''

But the Obama campaign and a lot of other people were still talking about her comment that came out during the weekend, to the effect that King's dream of racial equality was realized only when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

The remark didn't sit well with Audrey Quantano, a Harlem resident who said she hasn't made up her mind about whom to vote for. She described herself as a longtime Clinton supporter, but she was not happy about the comment about King.

"I'm still working on that one,'' she said. "I'm processing that one.''

In South Carolina, on the other hand, Lonnie Randolph, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said voters won't be swayed by "a sound bite taken out of context.'' Still, he said he wasn't surprised race had become an issue. "Remember this is America. Everything we do is about race,'' Randolph said.

Added Todd Shaw, an assistant professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of South Carolina, "I don't think it's seismic, but I think it is having some impact.''

"I don't personally believe that Senator Clinton in effect meant to diminish the role of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in relation to President Johnson, nor do I believe that Bill Clinton has a patronizing attitude toward Barack Obama, but I believe that in heat of the moment they picked their words unwisely and then have subsequently not really allayed concerns but really kind of stoked concerns even more among African Americans and others by taking a defensive posture,'' he said.

The former president said last week that Obama was trying to sell a fairy tale in his version of his opposition to the Iraq war, a comment that some in the Obama camp have portrayed as having a racial tinge.

Obama, who criticized Hillary Clinton's comment during the weekend, said Monday while campaigning in Nevada that it was time to stop "so much tit-for-tat, back-and-forth.'' He said he sometimes disagrees with Sen. Clinton but he added, "I think that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have historically and consistently been on the right side of civil rights issues. . . . I think that they care about the African-American community and they care about all Americans and they want to see equal rights and equal justice in this country.''

She, too, tried to mend fences.

"Both Senator Obama and I know we are where we are today because of leaders like Dr. King,'' she said at the King event. "We have to bring our party together and our country together.''

The former first lady was also scheduled to tape an hourlong appearance with Tyra Banks, a former model who hosts a daytime talk show popular with black women.

Bill Clinton, meanwhile, has made the rounds of black radio, explaining his "fairy tale'' reference to Obama - it was about his opposition to the Iraq war, not his candidacy, Clinton said. The former president planned to return to the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show today.

"What all this shows is that we're not beyond racial problems in this country,'' Sharpton said in an interview last Tuesday. "The whole thing sneaked up on them and has now become a major issue.''

Indeed, the situation is especially vexing for Bill Clinton - so popular among black voters he was once nicknamed the first black president. Many in politics believe Hillary Clinton's popularity among black voters is derived almost entirely from their favorable view of her husband.

"He's not on the ballot, and Hillary is very white,'' said David Bositis, a scholar at the Joint Center for Political Studies, a black think tank. "Anything that is there for her is a superficial transference, not a permanent transference.''

Sen. Clinton herself has tried to turn the tables, suggesting Obama doesn't hold a candle to King in terms of activism and results.

"Dr. King didn't just give speeches,'' she said on NBC's Meet the Press - a slap at Obama's oratory, which the Clinton campaign contends is rarely backed up by results.

The new focus on race - and its impact on the electorate - will not be known until the South Carolina primary Jan. 26, when blacks are expected to make up more than 50 percent of the Democratic electorate.

A CBS News-New York Times poll released Sunday showed Obama leading Clinton among blacks 49 percent to 34 percent. And a survey by The Washington Post and ABC News showed blacks now support Obama over Clinton by 60 percent to 32 percent; Clinton led in that category 52 percent to 39 percent a month ago.

Donna Brazile, a prominent Democratic strategist who criticized Bill Clinton for his "fairy tale'' remark last week, said the controversy reflected the vastly different roles Obama and Hillary Clinton play in the contest.

"Obama represents reconciliation, while Hillary represents equal rights, civil rights and human rights for all,'' Brazile said. "You have a champion who's been on the front line and you have someone like Obama who has successfully navigated American politics without using race as an issue.''

"I am calling on them both to let the moment pass,'' she said. "Instead of attacking each other, let's attack the problems we face as Americans, like poverty and the 47 million Americans without health care.''

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