MIAMI — Kendrick Meek tours Jimmy's Place, a workaday diner on Northwest 7th Avenue, with an easygoing familiarity. He's on his home turf -- and it shows. He squeezes hands and arms and banters with customers, some of whom have known him for years. If every corner of Florida could be like this one, he'd cruise to a Senate seat.
Of course, it isn't. And the four-term congressman's bid to become the first African American senator from this state remains in serious trouble. He's behind in the polls, lagging in fundraising and facing a difficult primary this month against a billionaire.
If Meek doesn't reach the Senate, the chamber will open its next session without a single black member for the first time since 2004.
But he's not the only African American candidate to struggle this year. The difficulties come as something of a surprise just two years after the historic election of Barack Obama, which for some signaled the arrival of a new generation of Democratic African American candidates who, like Obama, would shatter long-standing barriers.
"What the president did bring about was empirical evidence to show that people of goodwill can come together and vote for the best candidate," Meek said over omelets in the Miami diner. "The president showed that it can happen."
But for black candidates looking to follow Obama's lead, that has yet to come to pass.
In Alabama, Artur Davis, once considered a Democratic rising star, was trounced in his attempt to become that state's first black governor. In South Carolina, Alvin Greene has become a punch line in his out-of-nowhere bid to unseat Republican Sen. Jim DeMint. And in Georgia, African American senatorial candidate Michael Thurmond faces an uphill battle against incumbent GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Nor have things been easy for the nation's two African American governors: New York's David Paterson, faced with tumbling popularity ratings, declined to seek reelection. And in Massachusetts, Deval Patrick, another Democratic bright light, is in danger of being voted out of office.
Obama largely has avoided spending political capital on campaigning, whether for African American candidates or otherwise. But some in the black community believe he holds a special obligation to advance other black office seekers.
"I think Obama can do more for Meek," said Katherine Tate, a political science professor at UC Irvine. "We need more cheerleading from the president for Meek and for Democratic candidates in races in minority communities."
History, however, is being made in other ways. This year ironically has seen a surge of African Americans running for office from a more unlikely direction -- the right.
Record numbers of black candidates have run this year as Republicans. And if one, Tim Scott of South Carolina, wins a congressional seat in November, he'll become the first African American Republican elected from the Deep South in more than a century.
Another congressional hopeful, Allen West, is running a competitive race in South Florida as the first African American "tea party" candidate.
Scott, a member of the South Carolina state Legislature, defeated the son of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond in the GOP primary. But he deflects questions about race and history.
"People are more concerned with the issues than they are anything else," Scott said.
The candidacies of Scott and West are a departure from what has long been the norm -- the African American Democrat like Meek, whose political power is generated from districts heavy with minority voters.
In that sense, they may be more transcendental politicians, along the lines of Obama, despite the fact that both men strongly disagree with the president's policies.
"We wonder in black politics if we're nearing the end of the 'black empowerment,' " said Tate, citing a time when African Americans became big city mayors and encompassing Jesse Jackson's 1984 run for president.
"I think there is a feeling that black candidates can win now without heavily emphasizing black issues in order to mobilize the black community," Tate said.
In that respect, Obama's victory was a model for success. But as often, the ones who are attempting to replicate it are Republicans such as Nikki Haley, an Indian American who could be elected governor in South Carolina. Should she win, she'll join Louisiana's Bobby Jindal as another governor with South Asian heritage.
In the West, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, another Republican, could become the nation's first female Latino governor, succeeding Bill Richardson, a Democrat. In nearby Nevada, Latino Republican Brian Sandoval is poised to take the governor's office.
In Southern California, Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez is being challenged by Van Tran, a state lawmaker and Vietnamese immigrant who recently won a tea party endorsement. In Florida, if Meek survives the Democratic Senate primary, he'll face Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican, along with Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist.