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Black leaders not yet sold on Obama

Times Staff Writer

As pastor of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Sumter, S.C., the Rev. James Blassingame feels pride at the thought of electing the country’s first black president. But Blassingame, one of his state’s most prominent black ministers, will not support Sen. Barack Obama’s bid to achieve that historic goal.

Instead, the minister will campaign for one of Obama’s white rivals for the Democratic nomination, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Obama, he said, is a “stranger” with a faraway home and little-known biography, whereas Edwards -- “he’s a homeboy.”

Other black leaders are wary that the relatively untested senator from Illinois might prove weak in the general election.

“Obama’s ambition could bring all of black America down,” said state Sen. Robert Ford of South Carolina. “If the Democrats lose control of Congress, we’re going to go back and struggle and struggle and struggle.”

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A supporter of black candidates Shirley Chisholm and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in decades past, Ford said he would choose between Edwards and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) this time around.

Excitement is spreading among Democratic Party activists that Obama might have a shot at winning the White House, but black opinion leaders are still sizing him up -- and some are already expressing greater kinship with other candidates.

Half-black and half-white, a U.S. senator for a mere two years, Obama boasts that his life story transcends racial lines. But he is unlikely to win the Democratic nomination without substantial support from black voters. Blacks remain one of the party’s most loyal voting blocs. They are expected to make up more than half of the electorate in South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary next year and to play a crucial role in other key states.

Stronger ties

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Obama is the only top-tier African American seeking the nomination, but he will have to fight for black votes along with other candidates, some of whom have far stronger ties to black leaders than he does.

Edwards, for example, is expected to have an advantage in his native state of South Carolina, and his pledges to fight poverty and bring troops home from Iraq are popular with black leaders. Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner, has decades-old ties with scores of black preachers and civil rights leaders who remain close to her husband, former President Clinton.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey in December found that all three were popular among black voters, but that Clinton received the highest marks.

Blassingame speaks fondly of Edwards, who, like the pastor, was born in Seneca, S.C. “I know where he came from, because I came from there,” Blassingame said. “I can identify with him, and he can identify with us.”

The actor Bill Cosby told the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, that the country was ready for a black president, but he suggested that Obama might not be the best candidate in the 2008 race.

“I see the African American voter having to study both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Obama,” he wrote in an e-mail that the newspaper quoted Thursday. “It goes without saying that President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton have embraced the African Americans.... By studying both politicians deeply, the African American voter for the first time will not pick a candidate because of any particular idiosyncrasy.”

Obama has plenty of room to improve his standing, both with black community leaders and with black voters, who in the end won’t necessarily follow the lead of clergy and others. Despite a growing national profile and two best-selling books, recent polls show that he remains unknown to many voters.

Even Blassingame, the South Carolina pastor backing Edwards, said that some of his church members would embrace the possibility that their votes could make history and would support Obama once he campaigned in the state’s primary election.

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Still, some black leaders just don’t think Obama can win a general election, and they want to put their support somewhere else. Others worry about his lack of experience, particularly on foreign policy.

“It’s nothing against Obama, but we have to weigh all those factors,” said David Mack, a South Carolina state legislator and former chairman of the state’s black legislative caucus, who is backing Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.).

Ford, the state senator, said Obama “wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning one state” in a general election. He pointed to the 2006 Senate campaign in Tennessee, in which a black Democrat lost to a white Republican after a racially tinged campaign ad.

“I’m just being real,” Ford said.

Relative rookie

As a rookie on the national stage, Obama does not have an established nationwide network of fundraising and personal connections. And whereas the traditional black leaders in Democratic Party politics are identified by their connections to the old civil rights struggles of the South and of Northern cities, Obama was raised by a white mother in Hawaii and Indonesia. His ties to the black church and to the urban struggles of many blacks were solidified only when he moved to Chicago after college.

A spokesman for Obama said Thursday that the senator’s voter-outreach effort was just beginning. Still, there are signs that he has embarked on a quiet campaign to woo influential black leaders.

He placed a call this week to Rep. James E. Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House and one of the most powerful black politicians in South Carolina. Obama also addressed a breakfast in Chicago honoring the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., hosted by Jackson. Appearing at a black church in a poor suburb of Chicago, he offered hints that he viewed his political rise as a natural extension of King’s dream.

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“The torch has been passed to this generation, but we haven’t always taken it up,” Obama said in an account on the WBBM CBS2 television station. “We haven’t pushed the boundaries of what is possible. We have much more work to do.”

Obama received standing ovations that day.

Jackson has stopped short of endorsing Obama, but he told CNN on Thursday that he probably would back him. “All of my heart leans toward Barack,” he said. But he added that Obama would have to compete for the black vote. “I don’t think it will be hostile, or nasty, but it will be a very competitive campaign.”

While he is talking to the black voters and leaders, Obama is making sure his public image rests on a broad foundation. A new biographical video, released this week on Obama’s website, features several images of him working with blacks as a civil rights lawyer and community activist. But equally prominent images show him speaking intently with white constituents. Two people offer testimonials of their admiration for the senator: a white woman and a man who appears to be Latino.

If nothing else, Clyburn said in an interview, Obama’s candidacy would undercut the old “monolithic notion” that blacks will automatically vote for a black presidential candidate, or that whites will never do so.

“I’m surprised at the number of African Americans I talk to who are just very much for Edwards,” Clyburn said. “I’m also surprised at the number of well-heeled, wealthy white South Carolinians who tell me they’re for Obama.”

Obama formed an exploratory committee Tuesday, a step toward formally entering the presidential race, and says that on Feb. 10 he will announce a final decision on whether to run. Few doubt he intends to mount a campaign.

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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