Presidential hopeful Barack Obama faces two major obstacles in South Carolina, the first Democratic testing ground for black support: the popularity of the Clinton name and doubts among blacks that white America is ready for a minority president.
The candidacy of the 45-year-old Obama elicits genuine excitement in a state where blacks comprise about half of the primary electorate. Yet coupled with that emotion is a strong degree of skepticism about the freshman senator’s experience and whether he can win.
Obama also is up against the formidable Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner who enjoys strong support in the black community and is married to former President Clinton, who is wildly popular in the community.
The Associated Press interviewed Democratic voters across the state, including about a dozen blacks, and found evidence of excitement and doubts.
Ashley Torrence, a 27-year-old college instructor in Greenville, S.C., is torn between voting for Obama and Clinton, and considers her vote crucial because either candidate could smash barriers. Torrence has talked to Clinton and was disappointed when all she got from her encounter with Obama was a handshake.
“I wanted to ask him how he had planned to combat the feeling that unfortunately a lot of people have about just not being ready for a black male to be president and particularly a lot of people with old South mentality,” she said. “How is he going to deal with that? Because you can’t campaign as though it doesn’t exist.”
It was an issue Obama confronted on his first trip to South Carolina in February, telling those who doubted he could win because he’s black: “Don’t tell me I can’t do something. … I don’t believe in this can’t do, won’t do, won’t even try, style of leadership. Yes we can. Don’t believe in that.”
Obama’s plea was directed not only at voters, who will participate in the Jan. 29 primary, but Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston. Ford garnered headlines when he said he was backing Clinton in part because he was skeptical that Obama could win the presidency and feared that his nomination could hurt other Democratic candidates.
“Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose — because he’s black and he’s top of the ticket. We’d lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything,” said Ford, who is black.
He drew widespread criticism for his comment and later apologized.
But the AP interviews suggested the view is prevalent among blacks, along with concerns across racial lines about whether Obama has enough experience to be president. Greenville County Democratic Party chairman Andy Arnold hears it frequently among blacks, who are supporting Clinton in greater numbers in recent polls.
“A lot of the African-Americans are with Hillary because I think they don’t believe white America is ready for a black president,” said Arnold, who is white and uncommitted in the race. “They want to win and so in a way, I think it is a barrier to him. And it may be more so in the South where the remnants of the old South are still in the older folks mind. They just can’t believe in their right mind that white folks will elect a black man president, so let’s not put ourselves through that agony.”
Clinton is a favorite of black women in current polls, due largely from goodwill for her husband and her lifelong focus on issues affecting families and children. Much of her lead comes from women and blacks, and it’s strongest among black women. According to Associated Press-Ipsos polls taken this summer, 59 percent of black women said they support Clinton and 27 percent Obama.
The South Carolina primary, coming after heavily white Iowa and New Hampshire vote, and Nevada casts its ballots, is crucial for Obama. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson won the state’s primary.
The Obama campaign argues that doubts about whether a black man can be elected is not widespread. They cite a Winthrop Poll of South Carolinians in May in which 79 percent of respondents said they think the country will be ready for a black president in the next 12 years. However, the poll did not ask whether they would be ready in 2008.
The Obama campaign launched radio ads this week with a direct appeal to black voters and has embarked on a labor-intensive effort to reach voters in their homes. Obama has about 40 staffers in the state, more than double any of his rivals. His top-ranked fundraising — he has raised nearly $60 million — allows him to invest in advertising and staff through the primary race.
Part of the campaign’s strategy is to host small meetings in voter’s homes, in the style of a Mary Kay or Tupperware party but where the pitch is for a candidate instead of cosmetics or plastic containers.
Iris Gladden was one of nine to attend a party this week in Timmonsville, a rural community not far from Interstate 95. Obama field organizer Ryan Cooper, 22, talked about the candidate’s appeal across racial lines and showed the group a video about the candidate that focused on Obama’s modest background and accomplishments, then asked to hear their concerns.
The group discussed their worries about health care costs, the quality of education, the difficulty to earn a living wage, opportunities for their young people and ending the war in Iraq. At Cooper’s encouragement, they also talked about what they liked about Obama after seeing the video. Gladden mentioned that as a single mother who raised four children, she was proud to see someone from a single-parent home achieve great things.
But as she left the gathering, she was still undecided about whether to vote for Obama or Clinton. Gladden said one of her sons was in the Naval Reserves and came close to being sent to Iraq. She said her top priority is a president who will end the war, and although both Obama and Clinton are running solid campaigns, she’s not convinced they could win.
“I see problems with both,” she said. “Obama because he’s black and Hillary because she’s a woman. Are we ready? Is America ready to go there?”
Rep. Jim Clyburn, the only black member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, said he thinks concerns about the war are more prominent in voters’ minds than issues of candidates’ race or gender. But he said if anything, Clinton’s gender might help her in that regard.
“When it comes to issues of war and peace, women hold out hope for peace more than men do,” said Clyburn, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate but hasn’t ruled out doing so later. “If the election were held today, Clinton would carry the state. It’s not going to be held today.”
Another candidate, 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, has been arguing that he will be more electable in the South. He denies that’s because of Obama’s race or Clinton’s gender but says it’s because they have never run in the South while he won the primary in 2004 and was elected senator in North Carolina.
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