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Race enters the contest

Democratic rivals address a King Day rally, but discord seeps into even minor moments on the trail.

January 22, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It was to be a show of unity: The two top Democratic candidates for president were to march to a rally Monday, passing in the shadow of a Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds, to celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But while Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama were on hand to make speeches at the rally, only Obama arrived in time to march through the streets of this Southern capital. And in a sign of how the once-cordial Democratic contest has become twisted by a debate over race, some African Americans in the audience took Clinton's absence as a snub.

Even the most routine stops on the campaign trail now are taking a combustible air. Clinton's aides said she had been delayed by "confusion" over the time her plane was to leave for South Carolina, but some in the audience said the senator from New York should have marched in the parade, joining Obama.

Thomas Bell, 45, a clergyman from Camden, S.C., said that politicians often visit when it is in their interest. "But this particular march is important to us because of what Dr. King stood for."

The tensions spilled into Monday night's Democratic presidential debate, in which Clinton and Obama -- in a forum that also included candidate John Edwards -- repeatedly squared off in bitter, sometimes personal exchanges over their policy proposals and legislative records.

A day earlier in New York, a raw moment played out after Clinton attended services at a famous black church in Harlem. As she passed out hot chocolate and coffee to the crowd in the freezing weather, one man turned away and yelled at her not to come to Harlem to "steal" the black vote from Obama.

On Saturday, racial dynamics had been at work in the Nevada caucuses. Clinton won that contest, powered by white and Latino votes. But in an illustration of the racial divide, runner-up Obama picked up 83% of the black vote.

And in another possible sign of how race is shaping the campaign, the former first lady on Monday seemed to be downgrading her role in South Carolina's primary, the next contest on the Democratic calendar and one in which black voters make up about half of the electorate.

She came to the state and left with no plans to return before Thursday. Instead of trying to boost her odds in South Carolina, Clinton will use the next few days to campaign in other states, including California, New Mexico and Arizona -- all of which vote Feb. 5 and have large Latino populations.

Her husband stayed in South Carolina to campaign on her behalf. But Bill Clinton too has been ensnared in racial politics of late.

The former president angered some African American leaders recently when he cast Obama's stance on the Iraq war as a "fairy tale." He has since tried to make amends in calls to black talk-radio stations. It is unclear whether the mea culpa has worked.

Charles Perry, a trustee of Abyssinian Baptist Church, which Hillary Clinton visited Sunday, said he found the "fairy tale" reference disrespectful.

Obama "has been a state senator. He has experience. He's been out there in the community," Perry said. He added that Clinton's comment might spur a reevaluation of the former president, with some black voters wondering whether "you were like this all the time and have been covering this up."

For much of the 2008 Democratic contest, racial politics seemed nonexistent. Obama appeared to be a candidate with cross-racial appeal. Hillary Clinton seemed positioned to scoop up a healthy share of the black vote, aided in part by her husband's popularity in the black community.

Had she attended the march here Monday, held before a rally where speeches commemorated the King holiday, Clinton would have seen a crowd that was conspicuously pro-Obama. People waved signs reading "Obama '08" and "No Clinton Dynasty." Clinton still had a solid number of supporters; Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, had fewer. A small band of pro-Confederate flag demonstrators gathered across the street, with signs reading "NAACP Bad for Blacks" and "Flag Forever."

When Clinton did arrive at the rally, she took care to praise the senator from Illinois.

"We have come so far together; you can see that on this stage," Clinton said. "Barack Obama is an extraordinary young African American with so much to contribute."

With racial tensions climbing, Clinton wants to avoid charges that she is diminishing important black figures, at least when speaking to a mostly black audience. Some African Americans are upset over a comment she made this month about King's legacy. She had said that it took President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign meaningful civil rights legislation into law, a reading of history that some saw as demeaning to King.

Leaving the rally, Sylvia Allen-Ouzts, 61, made plain that resentments persist: "She took away some of what we believed and have taught our children."

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

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