He prayed where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached in Atlanta. He swayed to the strains of a gospel choir in Milwaukee. He high-fived political leaders in Harlem. And he rallied supporters here the other night at the California African American Museum.
Since he left behind the frigid temperatures and nearly all-white populations of Iowa and New Hampshire, Sen. John Kerry has been assiduously courting black voters, the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic Party and a vital ingredient for victory come November.
On Tuesday, as Democrats hold primaries in 10 states and select one-third of their convention delegates, African-Americans are expected to make up as much as 48 percent of the turnout in Georgia, 25 percent in New York and smaller, but still significant, double-digit percentages in Ohio, Maryland and California, according to David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
In many ways, Super Tuesday and the other primary contests are a dry run for motivating black voters to cast their ballots in the general election.
"If you turn on voters in the spring, they'll turn out in the fall," said Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "You've got to stir the pot early."
This year, political strategists say, African-Americans are concerned overwhelmingly with one broad objective.
"Black people, more than any other group, want to see Bush defeated," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who campaigned vigorously for Kerry in South Carolina.
At the California African American Museum, attorney Bert Christian came to check out Kerry before he votes in the Democratic primary Tuesday. But the candidate who is most on his mind is President Bush.
"I certainly hope he's defeated," said Christian, who is African-American and leaning Kerry's way. "The war was really ridiculous. I just think he lied to us. . . . He's not a good president."
In past elections, African-Americans have tended to worry about affirmative action, affordable housing, poverty, crime and other issues. This year, focus groups show that blacks' fears about the economy, health care and the war in Iraq are nearly identical to those of white Democrats, with a near-universal focus on finding a nominee who is electable.
"You can close your eyes and you don't see black or white anymore," Brazile said.
Both Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) are wooing black voters, 90 percent of whom tend to vote Democratic.
Edwards does it by personal experience, as he talks about growing up in the segregated South, reminiscing about the 6th-grade teacher at his school who quit rather than educate black children as well as white.
Kerry, on the other hand, uniformly delivers his standard stump speech.
"I'm here to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush administration," he says to wild applause. "Like father, like son, one term and you're done!"
At Sunday's debate in New York, though, Kerry referred to a private study indicating that nearly half of working-age African-American men in New York City do not have jobs. Clyburn said the issue is something that blacks, "who are last hired, first fired," can relate to.
When Kerry talks about the black experience, as he did in Atlanta recently, it sounds more as though he's discussing a bit of history than something that took place in his lifetime.
"Dr. King's journey is not just for African-Americans, it was a journey for all Americans," he told a raucous crowd at the Roxy Theater. "He's not just an African-American hero, he's an American hero. His last campaign was a campaign for jobs, for economic justice in this country. That is today the great challenge for this nation."
Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University, noted that Kerry's lack of firsthand experience in the civil rights movement and the minimal black population in his home state of Massachusetts is a drawback, but only a slight one.
"He's doing catch-up here in terms of experience and getting comfortable with his message to African-American voters," Black said. "Edwards has a lot more points to make with African-Americans than Kerry does, because he can talk about growing up with segregation."
Kerry, however, has surrounded himself with prominent black leaders, such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement; Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a veteran member of Congress from Harlem; and Valerie Jackson, the widow of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
"That gives a stamp of validation that the issues that are of concern to Charles Rangel and John Lewis are also of concern to John Kerry," said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), one of Kerry's national co-chairmen.
In South Carolina, Kerry's former Swift boat gunner, David Alston, a black minister, described in a television commercial how he fought by his side in Vietnam, vouching for Kerry's leadership. Indeed, Kerry has used his military experience as a bridge to the black community, in which time in the service is highly regarded.
"They were in a situation where every day his life depended on Rev. Alston," said Marcus Jadotte, Kerry's deputy campaign manager. "It didn't matter where they came from, they were literally all in the same boat."
So far, according to exit polls, Kerry has won the black vote in every state except South Carolina, where Edwards beat him 37 percent to 34 percent among African-Americans, who make up about half of the state's Democratic electorate.
In Wisconsin, Kerry trounced Edwards, 55 percent to 15 percent, among blacks; in Missouri, Kerry won 53 percent of the black vote to Edwards' 16 percent; and in Virginia and Tennessee, Kerry won 64 percent and 47 percent of the black vote respectively.
A core constituency
In the 2000 election, African-American voters made up 11.5 percent of the national vote. Almost 1 in 5, or 18.9 percent, of all people who voted for Gore were black, even more support than former President Bill Clinton received in 1992 and 1996.
With many blacks still angry about the Florida election debacle of 2000, believing that many of them unfairly were kept from voting, some say the turnout will be even greater in November, possibly making the critical difference in a closely divided electorate.
For front-runner Kerry, locking in that support and stoking the excitement now could make all the difference on Nov. 2.
On a recent Sunday morning in Atlanta, he sat quietly in a pew at the church where the King once preached his fiery sermons on civil rights.
After Rev. J.L. Roberts praised Kerry for his willingness to come and pray, rather than pontificate, the Massachusetts senator was mobbed with hugs, kisses and requests for autographs from enthusiastic congregants whose support he covets.
Eventually, the pastor urged decorum.
"I know you're excited," he admonished. "Act like you're in church."
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Democratic presidential candidates have been courting black voters in states holding primary contests Tuesday.
PERCENT OF BALLOTS CAST BY BLACK VOTERS IN NOV. 2000
NEW YORK 13.6%
RHODE ISLAND 3.0%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau