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For black skeptics, Obama cites Iowa

His victory there proves whites are ready for an African American president, his camp tells South Carolina voters.

January 07, 2008|Peter Wallsten and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Volunteers for Barack Obama's presidential campaign fanned out into black neighborhoods over the weekend with new instructions: Tell undecided voters that Obama "proved the cynics wrong in the Iowa caucuses."

The message about Obama's decisive Iowa victory Thursday is familiar to those who have heard his theme of transcending old-style politics. But for many black voters, the warning against cynicism carries a special and somewhat different meaning: Let go of old fears that white America will never elect a black man to the presidency; Iowa has proven doubters in the black community wrong.

The fear that Americans will not accept a black president has loomed as a persistent obstacle to Obama's chances in South Carolina, where blacks are expected to account for at least half of the voters in a crucial Jan. 26 Democratic primary, and in other states with large black populations.

A survey taken late last month for CBS found that nearly 40% of black voters in South Carolina believed the country was not "ready to elect a black president," compared with 34% of whites -- a sentiment that Obama aides viewed as a far greater impediment to his election than flat-out racism among those who would never vote for him anyway.

The campaign has spent months trying to address these fears, using surrogates such as Obama's wife, Michelle.

"Now, I know folks talk in the barber shops and beauty salons, and I've heard some folks say, 'That Barack, he seems like a nice guy, but I'm not sure America's ready for a black president,' " she told a black audience recently in Orangeburg, S.C.

She asked the crowd to "cast aside the cynics," and urged: "We're going to have to dig deep into our souls, confront our own self-doubt. . . . Let's prove to our children that they really can reach for their dreams. Let's show them that America is ready for Barack Obama."

For much of last year, surveys showed most black voters in South Carolina supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, whose husband, former President Clinton, is popular among blacks. Several new polls show Obama has closed that gap and leads among blacks in the state, suggesting that the campaign's outreach efforts have begun to work.

Now, Obama and his team have their most potent argument yet to counter black fears: Election results in which Obama has won support from tens of thousands of whites in an overwhelmingly white state, and the likelihood that on Tuesday he will do well in mostly white New Hampshire.

Over the weekend, Obama's campaign sent volunteers out to take the news of Iowa to black voters in South Carolina. They were armed with lists of undecided African Americans, some of whom have been concerned that his race would hold Obama back in the general election. Obama, 46, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother with roots in Kansas.

One pair of volunteers knocked on dozens of doors Saturday in a working-class neighborhood near downtown Columbia, the state capital. They carried a new memo, drafted after the Iowa victory. The cynics, it read, "said our country was too divided and disillusioned to come together. But Obama rallied Americans of every background, belief and party around a common purpose."

Some clearly still struggled with the racial question.

"Race matters," said Darcus Gordon, a 49-year-old postal service worker. "I was right on the edge of the civil rights movement, and I thought we'd come a lot farther, and I guess in some respects we have. But there are some strong feelings people still have about skin color."

Gordon said she had been leaning toward Clinton, but was ready to take a closer look at Obama because of Iowa and the ensuing celebration.

At another house, Margaret Mitchell, a 78-year-old retiree, said she could not decide among Clinton, Obama and John Edwards. She too said she did not know how much white support Obama could win.

"I don't know if you kept up with the Iowa caucuses," said volunteer Winston Lofton, 20, a Stanford University junior who was in town to help with the campaign. "But he won there."

Mitchell had seen the news. "That really got me more into voting for him," she said. "I said, 'Now all these people are going to go that way, so maybe I'm going to lean [that way].' "

The volunteers' new talking points are being used for canvassing black and white supporters alike. They carry one meaning for younger voters of both races, who have responded to Obama's efforts to paint himself as a champion of hope, but they are calibrated to send a somewhat different and reassuring message to the many older black voters who experienced segregation and the struggles of the civil rights movement, and who still fear that racism is deeply rooted.

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