Harlem Split on Clinton and Obama

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The campaign field offices of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in New York City's Harlem district are separated by just five blocks on Malcolm X Boulevard. Located in a converted storefront at 130th Street, Obama's headquarters were leased from a real estate office just two weeks ago. Last Thursday a stable of supporters worked the phones with unflagging energy, enumerating their candidate's merits with the fervor of the converted. But like any nascent operation, it was still ironing out the kinks. "Someone came in on Monday and donated a printer, but we keep running out of ink," says Karole Dill Barkley, one of about 20 steady volunteers. Workers hawk campaign buttons to fund replacement cartridges.

The Clinton field office feels posh by comparison. Set across two floors above a pizzeria, its carpeted waiting area is furnished with a glass coffee table and a leather couch. Mat-framed quotations from Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston adorn the walls. During lunchtime, a team of about two dozen volunteers worked the phones in the glow of a wall-mounted flat-panel TV. Here, too, a steely resolve is palpable. "There is an excitement in being able to participate in the democratic process," says Lynne Hertzog, a Clinton volunteer who spent two days canvassing door-to-door in New Hampshire and has distributed fliers and worked the phone bank here all week.

Harlem will serve as a critical litmus test in Tuesday's primaries. Both candidates boast an appeal in the neighborhood that extends well beyond their political gifts. Obama is the first African-American candidate to become a frontrunner for the nomination this late in a national campaign, an achievement that clearly resonates among residents of this community, long a nerve center for black intellectual and cultural life. Volunteers say that win or lose, his candidacy has been a game-changer. "We're going to have a newfound respect for formidable politicians of color," says Yvonne Durant, 55, who has been coming to the office since Monday.

Clinton is also on friendly ground here, thanks to prominent supporters like Congressman Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, who is in his 19th term representing the district. "No one has more reach in this neck of the woods," says Kevin Wardally, the Harlem political operative spearheading the New York senator's efforts. Her husband, long popular in the district, maintains his post-presidential office a few blocks down 125th Street, Harlem's main artery. But his effect on her candidacy has come into question. To many in this community, the former president's recent jabs at Obama's record felt like sucker punches. "Bill Clinton is perceived in this community now, with all due respect, as a racist," says New York State Senator Bill Perkins, one of the few members of the Harlem political establishment campaigning for Obama. Luther Smith, an opeative in the Clinton campaign's field office, concedes that "many people had questions" about the former President's comments. But he shrugs off the suggestion that the remarks could inflict residual damage at the polls. "It did not stick to Hillary. She has her own persona," he says. "At worst, it's a distraction."

Both sets of volunteers seem unfazed by the swirling controversy, and are quick to acknowledge the strength of their opponent. With "two intelligent, hard-working elected officials," says Keith Lilly, the volunteer campaign coordinator in Obama's office, "We have our cake and we're eating it, too." Clinton's team volleys back the compliment: "I think it's pretty clear that Obama will do very well among African-American voters," says Wardally, though he expects his candidate to garner "her piece" and carry the district. A Jan. 20 statewide poll conducted by Siena College, which found Clinton leading Obama, 46-36, among black Democrats seems to support his prognosis. Either way, says Durant, the Obama volunteer, "I feel like I have clout."