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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Hopes to Rally African Americans

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee must persuade blacks to go to the polls in greater numbers to tilt the race in his favor.

March 09, 2004|Eric Slater and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

NEW ORLEANS — The St. Peter African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest black house of worship in New Orleans, and after 14 years at its helm, the Rev. R.L. Palmer Jr. knows every one of its 164 parishioners so well he can tell you how they vote.

Not a single member of his congregation plans to back President Bush for reelection in November, the 59-year-old minister said.

But whether they will turn out in force for presumptive Democratic nominee John F. Kerry is still a mystery.

"Kerry does not have that Clintonesque relationship with African Americans," Palmer said, referring to the especially strong bond President Clinton built with black voters. "Kerry is a work in progress. He's doing pretty well, but that's perhaps mostly because of the general dissatisfaction with the Bush administration."

Louisiana joins Florida, Texas and Mississippi in holding presidential primaries today -- all of which Kerry is virtually certain to win.

So the Massachusetts senator has used many of his campaign stops in the four states to strengthen his ties with African Americans nationally in the hope they will rally behind him in November.

His challenge lies not in securing the bulk of black votes; over the last 40 years, African Americans have been the Democratic Party's most loyal constituents, routinely 80% or more vote for the presidential nominee.

Kerry must persuade them to vote in greater numbers to tilt the race in his favor, especially in states such as Louisiana and Florida, where the general election could be close.

Historically, turnout among black voters has lagged behind that of whites by several percentage points.

Four years ago, 90% of black voters cast their ballots for Al Gore -- a greater percentage even than voted for Clinton in 1992 (83%) and 1996 (84%) -- despite an aggressive courtship by Bush.

The then-Texas governor campaigned in many black neighborhoods and showcased a parade of black leaders at his nominating convention, including Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, now senior members of his administration. He also launched a $1-million ad campaign on black radio stations and addressed major black organizations that other Republicans had shunned.

Even so, Bush's showing among blacks in November 2000 was the worst of any Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater, who won just 6% of the black vote in 1964. Analysts said there is little reason to believe Bush will do much better this year.

"I'd be shocked if he got over 10%," said Susan Howell, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans. Kerry "is pro-gun-control, which most African Americans are. He's opposed to the death penalty, which most African Americans are."(Kerry supports capital punishment in some terrorism cases.)

"Kerry is really almost an ideal candidate for African American voters with his emphasis on the working man, the common man," she said, "and he has the [voting record] to back it up."

Exit polls have shown strong black support so far for Kerry, with the Massachusetts senator topping the Democratic field in each of the 30 primaries and caucuses, except South Carolina, where he ran even with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Edwards bowed out of the race last week.

In the closest of those races, black voters in Georgia made the difference.

While roughly 6 in 10 whites backed Edwards over Kerry, the same proportion of blacks supported Kerry over Edwards -- enough to hand him a narrow victory and humble the North Carolina senator on his home turf in the South.

With the Democratic primary season mostly a technicality now that Kerry has won 27 of 30 contests, pollsters here predict just 10% of registered voters will go to the polls today.

Lisa Williams, 36, pledged to be among them. Strolling down Bourbon Street on Monday morning, sipping coffee in the sunshine, the homemaker said she would cast her first-ever ballot for Kerry today, and probably vote for him again in November.

"But it's not about Kerry," said Williams, who is African American. "It's not even about Democrats and Republicans. I don't know much about Kerry -- I'm sure he's fine. I know enough about Bush that I'd vote for anyone, Republican or Democrat or whatever, as long as they can beat him."

Although low turnouts are expected in most states yet to hold contests, the Bush-versus-Kerry campaign has already begun, and the long run-up to the general election may benefit Kerry with black voters in the South, especially, some observers say, where people may now know relatively little about the New Englander.

Together with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the Bostonian is worth about $600 million. He has spent much of his time attacking Bush and may need to do more to inform many African Americans -- who on average earn less that whites -- that although he is comfortable financially, he empathizes with their concerns.

"I'll tell you what I know about him: He's filthy rich," said 62-year-old New Orleans handyman Cornelius Johnson.

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