Obama walks a tricky racial line

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., campaigns during a rally on the campus of Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., on Friday.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 26, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 11:14 p.m.

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Barack Obama is walking a tricky racial line, trying to excite black support in the South without getting tagged as "the black candidate" and scaring off anyone else.

At a spaghetti dinner in the basement of a black church this week, he told a cheering crowd the civil rights movement started from the bottom up, with marches and boycotts. "That's how change comes," he said, linking black civil rights to his own campaign slogan.

But here in South Carolina, which has its Democratic primary today, he also says over and over that color doesn't matter.

The same day as the church dinner, he told an audience at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, "If I came to you and I had polka dots, but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pockets and help you pay for college and keep America safe, you'd say, 'OK, I wish he didn't have polka dots, but I'm still voting for him.' "

A new McClatchy/MSNBC poll holds warning signs for Obama. He leads Hillary Rodham Clinton in South Carolina, but his support among white Democrats fell in one week from 20 percent to a mere 10 percent after race became more of an issue in the campaign.

Blacks comprise large portions of the Democratic electorate in Deep South states, and they could help Obama win a handful of primaries, including South Carolina's. After the results are in tonight, he's heading to Macon, Ga., and then on to Alabama on Sunday for campaigning.

But the more Obama is seen through a racial lens, the more it might hamper him in other, bigger states, especially those where voters might be unaccustomed or unwilling to support black candidates.

Clinton's campaign isn't interested in helping him resolve that predicament. Her strategists deny any effort to stir the racial debate, but they say they believe the fallout has had the effect of marking Obama as "the black candidate," something he has worked to avoid.

Bill Clinton reminded a South Carolina audience this week, even as he linked Obama and Hillary Clinton as historic candidates.

"They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender," he said. "That's why people tell me Hillary doesn't have a chance of winning here."

Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, must juggle race-related matters that sometimes seem to conflict. He must convince blacks that America is ready to elect someone like him, so their votes for him will not be wasted nor their hopes dashed. At the same time, he says voters can embrace him without regard to color. That approach, he said, won him votes "across the board" in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, and will elsewhere.

The racial minefields haven't kept him from having fun with heavily black audiences in South Carolina this week.

The Harvard Law School graduate sometimes playfully breaks into vernacular, which seems to amuse him and his audiences greatly.

"I need you to grab Cousin Pookie to vote," he told a crowd in Kingstree on Thursday. "I need you to get Ray-Ray to vote."

At a similar rally in Dillon, Obama said Hillary Clinton was ducking the need to shore up Social Security. "There are some things that aren't right," he said, "and some things that just ain't right. And that ain't right!"

James Thrower, a federal employee from Sumter, was among the black voters hooked by Obama this week.

"In the beginning of this campaign, I didn't think America was ready" to elect a black president, Thrower, 50, said after one rally. "Now I do. This country needs some fresh blood."

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