DETROIT — Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) on Thursday decried the lack of outrage over gun violence in urban America and criticized President Bush's decision to commute the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis Scooter" Libby while black men serve time for lesser crimes.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) suggested the solution to urban violence was providing hope of a brighter future to young men, through better education as well as the occasional second chance after a run-in with the criminal justice system.
In fact, throughout a two-hour forum before the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the full field of Democratic presidential candidates spoke about issues of poverty, justice and equality in the clearest terms to date in this campaign.
It wasn't hard to see why. Such a large-scale gathering of the black establishment always presents a propitious environment for Democrats, who routinely court African American voters as an active part of their party's base.
But there was a sense of heightened confidence among crowd members, many of whom seemed well aware of their potential to have greater influence over the selection of the next Democratic presidential nominee than at any time in recent history.
South Carolina's position as one of the first primaries in the nation next year gives new power to that state's large black population. In fact, many of the states holding early -- and therefore probably influential -- primaries have large African American populations.
At the same time, black leaders say their community is excited about the field of candidates, which includes not only Clinton and other longtime allies but also Obama, who is black. That could translate into a more engaged black electorate.
"This is an unprecedented opportunity for black voters," said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. "It's such a radical departure to have South Carolina as an early state, when in the past what we've had are heavyweight states that are demographically so unrepresentative of the United States. It's an amazing chance for black voters to weigh in."
The NAACP event offered candidates the chance to try to win over key African American leaders, and the Democratic hopefuls were clearly speaking directly to the touchstone issues important to those opinion makers.
Obama combined an assessment of social problems with a strong dose of personal feeling, as when he suggested that Libby got off easy compared with others.
"We know we have more work to do when Scooter Libby gets no prison time and a 21-year-old honor student who hadn't even committed a felony gets 10 years in prison," Obama said.
His latter reference was to Genarlow Wilson, who is serving time in Georgia for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17 years old. (The law Wilson was convicted of breaking was then a felony but has since been changed by Georgia lawmakers.)
Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice, but Bush commuted his prison sentence this month.
Obama also spoke of how the nation was "rightfully" grief-stricken over the Virginia Tech massacre, yet for the 34 public school students in Chicago shot to death this year, "for the most part, there has been silence."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson spoke about issues of diversity and pointed out that the sole Republican presidential candidate in attendance, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, took a hard-line approach to illegal immigration.
Richardson's mother is Mexican, and he spent much of his childhood in Mexico.
"I have a beef to pick with you: You just invited Tom Tancredo, who I think said he wants to send me back to Mexico," Richardson joked to the group.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina told the gathering that "doing something about the 'two Americas' is the cause of my life."
"We want America to see the other America," Edwards said. "We want America to understand the struggles that are going on."
All of the Democratic candidates received ovations, with perhaps the loudest going to Obama.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware have a long history with the NAACP and its leaders.
Still, NAACP officials said, no one candidate or party could take for granted the votes of African Americans.