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Black women torn by race, gender ties

Times Staff Writer

. -- The packed late morning service had just concluded at Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, one of the largest black churches in South Carolina. As congregants streamed out of the vast air-conditioned sanctuary, a handful of women stopped to chat about an issue that is tearing them up: the Democratic presidential primary.

The women, who included a hairdresser, a school administrator, an account manager and an Olympic sprinter, said they were struggling to decide between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, each of whose candidacy is potentially historic. Their decision could profoundly effect the Democratic presidential race.

Besides the appeal of gender and race, when asked what qualities they were drawn to, all of them said they valued Clinton’s experience and Obama’s sense of hope, causing a struggle between their hearts and their heads.

And if they look to people they respect for clues, which towering cultural figure should they heed? Oprah Winfrey, who has broken with her tradition of eschewing politics to embrace Obama? Or former President Bill Clinton, who visited this very church last spring and is widely revered in the black community?

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“I TiVo Oprah every day,” said Neshunda Walters, a 33-year-old assistant high school principal. “But right now, I am on the fence, swaying a little bit toward Barack because I do want him to have a good showing in the primaries. I am also swinging towards Hillary because, knowing the experiences she had as first lady, she is well-versed in foreign policy.”

Carmen Thomas, a 44-year-old hair salon owner whose husband, Benjamin, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, is feeling similar qualms. “I love Bill, loved him when he was in office,” she said. “I am excited that we have a brother running for office and that we have a female running for office, and that they are both Democrats.”

In South Carolina -- a newly important Democratic battleground with an early primary -- the black vote is crucial. Half of Democratic voters here are black; a majority of those are women. And because so many black women have yet to make up their minds -- about 40% in one recent poll said they were undecided -- experts suggest that the victor here Jan. 29 will be the candidate who successfully courts them.

The Democratic National Committee scheduled the primary on the heels of contests in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada specifically to give black voters a voice in the nominating process. Given Obama’s vast resources, he could probably survive a setback in Iowa or New Hampshire. But if he can’t win in South Carolina, say experts, he will be in trouble on Feb. 5, when 20 states are to vote in what amounts to a national primary.

“The worst thing Obama could do would be to lose in South Carolina,” said Clemson University political science professor Bruce W. Ransom II.

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Early favorite

Scott H. Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor who directed a recent poll of African Americans in the state, said Clinton was a favorite early on, thanks to her husband. “However, as African American voters have gotten to know Barack Obama, support for him has increased significantly,” he said. “It may literally come down to whoever gets the African American female vote.”

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In the vestibule of Bible Way, which is the spiritual home to 10,000 members, the women spoke eagerly about the campaign, and their sense of political engagement -- some for the first time.

LaTasha Colander Clark, 31, is an Olympic track and field gold medalist who is pregnant with her first child. She wants a president who can make her feel safe, she said. “I am going to make sure I get every bit of information, right down to the last drop. I am going to take my time.”

Felicia Doe said she was leaning toward Clinton, who seemed at ease on the international stage. “We have really ruined our American name in the world and we need to fix that,” said Doe, a 40-year-old account manager. But, she said, “my heart leaps when I see Barack and everything he stands for.”

Gwendolyn Rivers, 40, a mortgage lender and real estate agent, was taken by Obama’s campaign logo, which looks like a sunrise. “It really did something to me, it just registered.” She also is inspired by his multiracial heritage. “Because he is an African and white at the same time, I think he would be able to cross both lines and know what the majority of America is really about,” Rivers said.

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Still, the issues Rivers cares about most are education and healthcare, perceived to be strengths of Clinton’s.

Obama and Clinton have each visited the state seven times since February. Actresses Alfre Woodard and Jasmine Guy have visited on behalf of Obama; Victoria Rowell of the daytime drama “The Young and the Restless” spent two days stumping for Clinton. The poet Maya Angelou has taped a video for Clinton that can be seen on her website or YouTube.

Last May, Bill Clinton garnered the state NAACP’s largest turnout ever when he spoke at its annual fundraiser at Bible Way. He joked about competing for the crowd’s attention with Patti LaBelle, who was in town to perform that night. “Maybe someone fed him the line,” said Ransom, “but it shows how he is just able to connect.” Which is good news for his wife.

Ann Lewis, women’s outreach director for Hillary Clinton, said: “When I was in South Carolina, I talked about how you make the biggest difference for your children, and your choice for president can be a big piece of this. We have some very powerful endorsers and validators at every level.”

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For his part, Obama has dropped hints that Winfrey, who tossed him a well-hyped bash in Montecito earlier this month, might visit the Palmetto state on his behalf. “I can’t make promises,” he told an anchor for ETV, the state’s public television and radio network, “but I know she has expressed an interest in South Carolina and maybe we can pull that off.”

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Key factors

Although both campaigns insist that voters are too sophisticated to allow the race to be boiled down to race vs. gender, there are good reasons those elements are very much in play here, said political scientist Adolphus G. Belk Jr., who coauthored the Winthrop/ETV poll with Huffmon.

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“There is a long history of African American women being pulled in one direction by black men on issues of racial solidarity, and being pulled in an opposite direction by white women on gender solidarity,” Belk said. “In reality, black women can feel the sting of both racial and gender discrimination.”

Democrats in South Carolina have often felt ignored by the party, feeling their votes are taken for granted. The state as a whole has not voted Democratic in a presidential race since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976.

“We can’t take any vote for granted at all,” said Obama spokeswoman Candice Tolliver. “We’re going after African American women very aggressively. We understand they are in many respects the tipping point in South Carolina.”

No one’s feeling it more than South Carolina state Sen. Gilda Y. Cobb-Hunter, who is black. Though she has never endorsed a presidential candidate, she said: “I am getting all kinds of pressures. I am kind of feeling like Oprah did, a lot of pressure from people who just assume I am supporting Hillary.”

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She hasn’t made up her mind. “Black women are beginning to ask themselves, ‘Which trumps which, race or gender? Some [black] women have concluded that if they have an opportunity to make history, they are going to give the edge to the race card,” Cobb-Hunter said.

Cobb-Hunter said she didn’t put a lot of stock in endorsements, which she called “old school politics.”

Other public officials agreed. “I would say that from my own personal experience, endorsements don’t always work,” said Bible Way’s pastor, the Rev. Darrell Jackson Sr., who is also a state senator.

Jackson found himself in the midst of a minor tempest earlier this year when, after being furiously courted by Clinton, Obama and other Democratic presidential contenders, he announced that he was endorsing Clinton less than a week after his public relations firm was hired by her campaign, in an entirely legal transaction, for about $10,000 a month. His preference for Clinton has not proved persuasive to all of his congregants -- one of them, Anton J. Gunn, is Obama’s South Carolina political director.

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Obama has so far outspent Clinton in the state -- $350,000 to $120,000 in the first half of the year. He has run two radio spots clearly targeting the black vote that have run on 36 hip hop, rap and gospel stations. (Clinton began airing a spot in South Carolina this week on radio stations with what the campaign called “predominant African American listenership.”)

“Hillary is doing well, but there’s a story there about Obama’s ground campaign,” said Joe Werner, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “They have their sneakers on and they are really working from the ground up. I think he knows he has to do well here.”

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Racial fears

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Another issue contributing to the difficult decision for all black voters is the fear that, despite polls to the contrary, Americans will not elect a black man to lead the nation.

Earlier this year, as he endorsed Clinton, state Sen. Robert Ford, who is African American, said that if Obama were to win the nomination, “Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose, because he’s black and he’s top of the ticket. We’d lose the House, the Senate and the governors and everything.”

Said Cobb-Hunter: “Ford is a really nice guy who sometimes he says things in a crude way that a lot of people are thinking.”

So far, African American men seem to be won over by Obama, and favor him over Clinton by a large margin. But for African American women especially, the concern lingers.

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“I want to be real with you,” Thomas said. “I want to vote for Barack Obama because he’s a brother, and I would love to see him in office and I am sure he can do the job. But I just don’t know if everybody else feels like I do, and I don’t want to throw away my vote. I am praying for both of them to be on the same ticket.”

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Winthrop/ETV poll

On Sept. 13, the Winthrop/ETV poll, a collaboration between Winthrop University and ETV, South Carolina’s public television and radio network, surveyed 657 African Americans about the presidential campaign. About 7% of black South Carolinians said they planned to vote in the Jan. 19 Republican primary; 83% said they planned to vote in the Jan. 29 Democratic primary.

The overall margin of error is plus or minus 3.8 percentage points; it is larger for subsets of voters.

Overall

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Obama: 35%

Clinton: 31%

Edwards: 3%

Undecided: 29%

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African American men

Obama: 42.4%

Clinton: 30.5%

Edwards: 3.4%

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Undecided: 21.7%

African American women

Obama: 30.6%

Clinton: 30.9%

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Edwards: 2.9%

Undecided: 33.8%

Times/Bloomberg poll

On Sept. 11, the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released a poll that included 313 Democratic primary voters in South Carolina. (The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points; it is larger for subsets of voters.)

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Among all Democrats

Clinton: 45%

Obama: 27%

Edwards: 7%

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Undecided: 13%

Among African Americans

Clinton: 43%

Obama: 32%

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Edwards: 4%

Undecided: 18%

Source: Winthrop/ETV poll, Times poll


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