Can Obama Count On the Black Vote?

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Jeff Haynes / AFP / Getty

Sen. Barack Obama (L), D-Ill., stands with Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. (R) at the PUSH for Excellence 17th Annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Scholarship Award Breakfast January 15, 2007, in Chicago, Illinois.

There is no doubt that Barack Obama can appeal to white audiences —witness the huge crowds of people the Presidential contender has drawn in Iowa and New Hampshire, or his best-selling book. But one of the many unknowns about Obama is how black activists and voters will respond to a different kind of candidacy for an African-American hopeful. Jesse Jackson's focus on the underclass and poverty didn't win him the Democratic nomination in 1988, but Obama would surely like to win the 90% of the black vote in most states that Jackson did.

Much of Obama's overall appeal stems from his image as practically a post-racial politician. Not only does he have a mixed-race background, with a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, but his rhetoric, most notably his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, emphasizes the importance of Americans moving beyond political, religious and racial differences. He rarely makes explicit appeals based on his race the way Jackson did. " A lot of black people aren't ready to get beyond race, because race puts them in the situation they're in," said Ron Walters, a professor at the University of Maryland who worked on Jesse Jackson's Presidential runs. "But many whites want to get beyond the past, they want to support a black person who doesn't raise the past and in fact gives them absolution from the past."

Obama won't start off with universal support among black leaders. David Mack, a black state legislator in South Carolina, said he wanted someone with more national-security experience, so he' s backing Delaware Senator Joe Biden instead. "Obama's very bright and very capable and he has the ability to build a team, but I feel experience is so important," Mack said. Robert Ford, a South Carolina state senator, said supporting Obama was too risky for the Democratic Party. "Obama would need 43% of the white vote in some states to win, and that's humanly impossible," said Ford. "Black Americans in the South don't believe this country is ready to vote for a black President."

Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of 43 black Democratic members of Congress, said she was "99% sure" her group would not support Obama en masse the way the powerful women's political organization Emily's List is backing Hillary Clinton. Many of the members, she said, would wait and see how the race shapes up. And others have already made up their minds in favor of others. Greg Meeks, a Democratic congressman from New York, says his decision is simple: he' s sticking with his hometown gal, Clinton, who has talked to him about her candidacy. "I've been calling her Madame President for a long time," Meeks said. New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton says he is considering another presidential run and used a recent interview with the Associated Press to make clear he's not that impressed with Obama. "If we're talking about the urban agenda, can you tell me anybody else in the field who's representing that right now?" Sharpton asked. He praised Edwards for talking about poverty issues, but left out Obama. "Right now we're hearing a lot of media razzle-dazzle," Sharpton said. "I'm not hearing a lot of meat, or a lot of content."

And the Clinton question, of course, looms large. Even during Clinton's impeachment trial, African-Americans, both in Congress and in the general public, never wavered from their strong backing of the man whom author Toni Morrison dubbed the country's "first black President." And it's not just that Bill Clinton would be campaigning for his wife. Two years ago, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman found in a focus group of 10 black women that eight named Hillary Clinton as their political hero. "I've got the biggest picture of one person in my office, a picture of myself and Hillary Clinton," says Robert Ford, the South Carolina state senator. And he predicted other black leaders in his state of South Carolina might also be swayed by Hillary's top booster. "If Bill Clinton calls you, you're not going to have much choice," he said. Early polls show Hillary Clinton far ahead of Obama among black voters (a CBS News poll gave Clinton 52% of the vote vs. 28% for Obama), although this in part reflects her extremely high name recognition.

The rest of the field isn't going to cede the black vote to Obama either. John Edwards ran strongly among black voters in winning South Carolina in 2004 and his message about reducing poverty and strong rhetoric about pulling troops out from Iraq — a war black voters have consistently opposed at higher percentages than white voters — contrast with Obama's more cautious positioning on that issue. Both Biden and Connecticut's Chris Dodd appeared last week at Martin Luther King Day events in South Carolina.

To be sure, Obama is starting out with some high-profile African-American backers. Virginia's Doug Wilder, who in 1989 was the first black in U.S. history to be elected governor, has met with Obama and encouraged him to run. More than most politicians, Wilder knows personally how difficult it can be for a black candidate; during his gubernatorial campaign, the gap between his numbers in the final polls and in the actual election showed such a dramatic drop-off that it became known as the "Wilder Effect." "I know there are people who don't think an African-American can win the Presidency," said Wilder. "I cut through a lot of that with one simple answer: Barack Obama can win the Presidency of the United States."

Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, who was a key leader in the civil rights efforts of the 1960s, said he was an early supporter of Bill Clinton and admired his wife, but called Obama "refreshing" and said he would back him. At a recent event in Chicago, Jesse Jackson, introducing Obama, said a "new President is in the house," although he has refused to endorse Obama officially so far. Jackson's son, Illinois Rep. Jesse Jr., is already backing Obama. New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, who used to be on Hillary' s bandwagon, is now publicly wavering and encouraged Obama to get into the race.

And Obama has carefully cultivated his relationships with other prominent African-Americans who could help his candidacy. While trying to figure out if he should run, Obama,like Clinton and several other candidates, met with a group of African-American women who are heavily involved in Democratic politics, including former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile. Brazile, who publicly rebuked John Kerry in 2004 for not having enough blacks on his campaign staff, has spoken warmly of Obama. The Illinois Senator frequently talks with T.D Jakes, a black minister who runs a Texas megachurch and whose sermons are broadcast around the country. Among the circle of advisers on Obama's team are a core of African-Americans who, like Obama, were born after the start of the Civil Rights movement and attended elite colleges. Cassandra Butts, a law school classmate of Obama's at Harvard and a former top aide to former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, will play a key role in his domestic policy, while Susan Rice, a former Clinton State Department official, has been advising him on foreign policy. And perhaps the most important of his African-American supporters is a woman who goes to his church in Chicago and who has praised him publicly — Oprah Winfrey.