Barack Obama is still having trouble selling his campaign of hope to nation’s influential black ministers — a group that could push him to the head of the Democratic pack.
Even among the powerful black leaders who have sided with Obama, loyalty to the Clintons, a remnant of the 1990s, is diluting the message of support, campaign watchers say.
The tepid backing from such a key voting block looms huge for Obama as polls tighten in Iowa and New Hampshire and Democrats increasingly view South Carolina's primary on Jan. 26th as a decisive front in their nomination battle.
Among blacks, who comprise about half of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, polls show Obama does no better than break even with Clinton, according to an Associated Press poll. Nationwide, Clinton also has a higher approval rating among blacks than Obama, according to a poll conducted recently for the AARP by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The first southern vote is the last real chance candidates will have to build up steam before Super Tuesday, just 10 days later, from which a nominee is almost sure to emerge.
Joe Reed, president of the Alabama Democratic Conference, one of the oldest and most influential African-American political and religious organizations in the South, said his group recently decided to back Clinton for a very simple reason: She actively sought their endorsement.
And, Reed concedes, support for Hillary stems from his organization’s support of Bill Clinton, to whom many African Americans remain deeply grateful.
“Of all crimes, the worst crime is ingratitude,” Reed says. “And if we hadn’t supported Hillary Clinton, for some reason, then we were letting race become too much of a factor. And that’s not something we should ever do.”
To be sure, Obama is getting some help from the pulpit. He recently orchestrated an impressive show of support from 130 African-American ministers in the must-win state of South Carolina.
The event was part church meeting, part rally and part pep talk for a campaign at a crossroads.
“Maybe what we need in America and the world today are a few more crazy people," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation and a key Obama backer. “People who believe that we can achieve that which others consider unachievable, the impossible dream that can become a reality in our own time.”
Still, it’s notable that many of the ministers convey a curiously benign message of “unity,” not urgency, that belies the increasingly divisive tone of Obama’s high-stakes battle with Hillary Clinton.
“As black folks come closer to the election, they will realize this country needs unifying. Obama is a unifying force,” said Lowery, who was joined in Charleston by the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a close adviser of Martin Luther King Jr. “We're not against anybody. We’re for a man we think brings a healing this nation needs.”
Election watchers say such measured language may keep Obama from posting stronger gains in South Carolina.
The “not against anybody” message of Lowery and Vivian is echoed by Obama supporters throughout African-American churches and, by extension, the entire community.
With the glaring exception of comedian Chris Rock -- who launched into a tirade at the Apollo Theater in Harlem recently about how “embarrassed” black voters would be if they voted for “that white lady” over Obama -- leading voices in the African-American community are torn between Obama and loyalty to the Clintons.
Their message of unity may help Obama build support among white voters, some of whom would be alienated by a more divisive portrayal from his black supporters. But the message has apparently not done enough to help him mobilize black voters themselves, experts say.
Just as Clinton has failed to lock up women's support because of her reluctance to emphatically play up her gender, Obama is struggling to convince African Americans that they should rally behind the first viable black candidate for president because of a reluctance to embrace some traditional causes advanced by black politicians.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed, even by some of his supporters. Recently, the Rev. Jesse Jackson – who is backing Obama, but with reservations — penned a scathing column in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he said John Edwards, not Obama, was the only Democratic candidate who has sufficiently addressed issues important to African Americans, including Katrina recovery and the Jena 6 case.
“The Democratic candidates — with the exception of John Edwards, who opened his campaign in New Orleans' Ninth Ward and has made addressing poverty central to his campaign — have virtually ignored the plight of African Americans in this country,” Jackson wrote. “The catastrophic crisis that engulfs the African-American community goes without mention. No urban agenda is given priority. When thousands of African Americans marched in protest in Jena, La., not one candidate showed up.”
What motivates black voters, pollsters say, is the same thing that motivates others: an overwhelming, and enduring, sense that Clinton is best equipped to win next November. When South Carolina voters are asked who has the better chance to do so, Clinton leads Obama by more than 3-1.
The dynamic is likely to resonate in states beyond South Carolina, especially in Super Tuesday states with large black populations like Alabama, California, New Jersey and New York — states where Obama will need to do well if, as expected, the field narrows by then to two or three candidates.
In one of those states, Clinton has made inroads with black voters, in part, just by showing up, with her famous and popular husband.
Still, the tide may be turning in Obama’s favor — both nationally and in South Carolina. According to a Rasmussen poll released Dec. 7, Obama's showing has improved significantly among black voters in South Carolina.
He now attracts 51 percent of the African-American vote in South Carolina while Clinton picks up just 27 percent. A month ago, the candidates were even in this important constituency (Obama 46 percent, Clinton 45 percent).
There is virtually no movement among white voters in the state — Clinton now earns 43 percent of the white vote, John Edwards 22 percent, and Obama 17 percent.
Meanwhile, Clinton’s support from black ministers is drawing some new scrutiny. An Associated Press review of a list of 80 endorsements Clinton’s campaign said she received from black ministers in South Carolina found that some of the backers were affiliated with religious ministries and outreach groups rather than churches, some were wives of ministers, two were church elders and at least two were not members of the churches listed beside their names.
All told, about 50 different groups were represented, rather than more than 80 congregations as initially implied, the review found.
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