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The Nation

Black leaders not yet sold on Obama

Many of them have stronger ties to Clinton and Edwards.

January 19, 2007|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C., the Rev. James Blassingame feels pride at the thought of electing the country's first black president. But Blassingame, one of his state's most prominent black ministers, will not support Sen. Barack Obama's bid to achieve that historic goal.

Instead, the minister will campaign for one of Obama's white rivals for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Obama, he said, is a "stranger" with a faraway home and little-known biography, whereas Edwards -- "he's a homeboy."

Other black leaders are wary that the relatively untested senator from Illinois might prove weak in the general election.

"Obama's ambition could bring all of black America down," said state Sen. Robert Ford of South Carolina. "If the Democrats lose control of Congress, we're going to go back and struggle and struggle and struggle."

A supporter of black candidates Shirley Chisholm and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in decades past, Ford said he would choose between Edwards and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) this time around.

Excitement is spreading among Democratic Party activists that Obama might have a shot at winning the White House, but black opinion leaders are still sizing him up -- and some are already expressing greater kinship with other candidates.

Half-black and half-white, a U.S. senator for a mere two years, Obama boasts that his life story transcends racial lines. But he is unlikely to win the Democratic nomination without substantial support from black voters. Blacks remain one of the party's most loyal voting blocs. They are expected to make up more than half of the electorate in South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary next year and to play a crucial role in other key states.

Stronger ties

Obama is the only top-tier African American seeking the nomination, but he will have to fight for black votes along with other candidates, some of whom have far stronger ties to black leaders than he does.

Edwards, for example, is expected to have an advantage in his native state of South Carolina, and his pledges to fight poverty and bring troops home from Iraq are popular with black leaders. Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner, has decades-old ties with scores of black preachers and civil rights leaders who remain close to her husband, former President Clinton.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey in December found that all three were popular among black voters, but that Clinton received the highest marks.

Blassingame speaks fondly of Edwards, who, like the pastor, was born in Seneca, S.C. "I know where he came from, because I came from there," Blassingame said. "I can identify with him, and he can identify with us."

The actor Bill Cosby told the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, that the country was ready for a black president, but he suggested that Obama might not be the best candidate in the 2008 race.

"I see the African American voter having to study both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama," he wrote in an e-mail that the newspaper quoted Thursday. "It goes without saying that President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton have embraced the African Americans.... By studying both politicians deeply, the African American voter for the first time will not pick a candidate because of any particular idiosyncrasy."

Obama has plenty of room to improve his standing, both with black community leaders and with black voters, who in the end won't necessarily follow the lead of clergy and others. Despite a growing national profile and two best-selling books, recent polls show that he remains unknown to many voters.

Even Blassingame, the South Carolina pastor backing Edwards, said that some of his church members would embrace the possibility that their votes could make history and would support Obama once he campaigned in the state's primary election.

Still, some black leaders just don't think Obama can win a general election, and they want to put their support somewhere else. Others worry about his lack of experience, particularly on foreign policy.

"It's nothing against Obama, but we have to weigh all those factors," said David Mack, a South Carolina state legislator and former chairman of the state's black legislative caucus, who is backing Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

Ford, the state senator, said Obama "wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning one state" in a general election. He pointed to the 2006 Senate campaign in Tennessee, in which a black Democrat lost to a white Republican after a racially tinged campaign ad.

"I'm just being real," Ford said.

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