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For black skeptics, Obama cites Iowa

Times Staff Writers

Volunteers for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign fanned out into black neighborhoods over the weekend with new instructions: Tell undecided voters that Obama “proved the cynics wrong in the Iowa caucuses.”

The message about Obama’s decisive Iowa victory Thursday is familiar to those who have heard his theme of transcending old-style politics. But for many black voters, the warning against cynicism carries a special and somewhat different meaning: Let go of old fears that white America will never elect a black man to the presidency; Iowa has proven doubters in the black community wrong.

The fear that Americans will not accept a black president has loomed as a persistent obstacle to Obama’s chances in South Carolina, where blacks are expected to account for at least half of the voters in a crucial Jan. 26 Democratic primary, and in other states with large black populations.

A survey taken late last month for CBS found that nearly 40% of black voters in South Carolina believed the country was not “ready to elect a black president,” compared with 34% of whites -- a sentiment that Obama aides viewed as a far greater impediment to his election than flat-out racism among those who would never vote for him anyway.

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The campaign has spent months trying to address these fears, using surrogates such as Obama’s wife, Michelle.

“Now, I know folks talk in the barber shops and beauty salons, and I’ve heard some folks say, ‘That Barack, he seems like a nice guy, but I’m not sure America’s ready for a black president,’ ” she told a black audience recently in Orangeburg, S.C.

She asked the crowd to “cast aside the cynics,” and urged: “We’re going to have to dig deep into our souls, confront our own self-doubt. . . . Let’s prove to our children that they really can reach for their dreams. Let’s show them that America is ready for Barack Obama.”

For much of last year, surveys showed most black voters in South Carolina supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, whose husband, former President Clinton, is popular among blacks. Several new polls show Obama has closed that gap and leads among blacks in the state, suggesting that the campaign’s outreach efforts have begun to work.

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Now, Obama and his team have their most potent argument yet to counter black fears: Election results in which Obama has won support from tens of thousands of whites in an overwhelmingly white state, and the likelihood that on Tuesday he will do well in mostly white New Hampshire.

Over the weekend, Obama’s campaign sent volunteers out to take the news of Iowa to black voters in South Carolina. They were armed with lists of undecided African Americans, some of whom have been concerned that his race would hold Obama back in the general election. Obama, 46, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother with roots in Kansas.

One pair of volunteers knocked on dozens of doors Saturday in a working-class neighborhood near downtown Columbia, the state capital. They carried a new memo, drafted after the Iowa victory. The cynics, it read, “said our country was too divided and disillusioned to come together. But Obama rallied Americans of every background, belief and party around a common purpose.”

Some clearly still struggled with the racial question.

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“Race matters,” said Darcus Gordon, a 49-year-old postal service worker. “I was right on the edge of the civil rights movement, and I thought we’d come a lot farther, and I guess in some respects we have. But there are some strong feelings people still have about skin color.”

Gordon said she had been leaning toward Clinton, but was ready to take a closer look at Obama because of Iowa and the ensuing celebration.

At another house, Margaret Mitchell, a 78-year-old retiree, said she could not decide among Clinton, Obama and John Edwards. She too said she did not know how much white support Obama could win.

“I don’t know if you kept up with the Iowa caucuses,” said volunteer Winston Lofton, 20, a Stanford University junior who was in town to help with the campaign. “But he won there.”

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Mitchell had seen the news. “That really got me more into voting for him,” she said. “I said, ‘Now all these people are going to go that way, so maybe I’m going to lean [that way].’ ”

The volunteers’ new talking points are being used for canvassing black and white supporters alike. They carry one meaning for younger voters of both races, who have responded to Obama’s efforts to paint himself as a champion of hope, but they are calibrated to send a somewhat different and reassuring message to the many older black voters who experienced segregation and the struggles of the civil rights movement, and who still fear that racism is deeply rooted.

Robert Ford, a state senator and veteran civil rights activist, last year became one of South Carolina’s first black leaders to caution publicly that nominating Obama could ensure a Republican general election victory in November. He said Saturday that the Iowa results had done nothing to prove that the world had changed. The vast majority of black elected officials in the country, he said, must be elected from districts that are carefully mapped to include a majority of African Americans.

“Of course you’re going to have white liberals in a Democratic primary vote for Obama. That’s why I’m concerned,” Ford said. “You’ve got people in this country who wouldn’t even vote for a black for dogcatcher, and now you want to ask them to vote for one for president of the United States?”

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Obama strategists argue that the more these skeptical African Americans see images of Obama winning support from whites, the more comfortable they will feel. Obama aides say that many whites also want to see that Obama is viable before they decide to back him -- meaning that the early-voting states may serve as an important indicator for millions of voters who could decide the nomination on the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday string of primaries that includes California, New York and about 20 other states.

“Each state along this path will be this same kind of historic test, to decide whether or not America is ready for a black president,” said Obama strategist Steve Hildebrand.

At times, the campaign has used subtlety to make its point. In one television ad that has aired in South Carolina, Obama speaks about his past as a community organizer in Chicago’s largely black South Side, and then as a civil rights lawyer working to protect voters.

“In each instance, there were naysayers who said it couldn’t be done,” he says. Images appear that show Obama mingling with an admiring group of white supporters, and Obama adds: “But in each instance, when millions of voices join together and insist on change, change happens.”

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The unspoken message of the pictures is that white voters are flocking to Obama.

An ad on radio stations with large black audiences, featuring Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., son of two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson Sr., was more blunt. It cast Obama as the logical choice for black voters who two decades ago backed the elder Jackson’s candidacies for president, even though few gave him a chance of winning.

“You can send more than a message,” the younger Jackson said in the radio ad. “You can launch a president.”

This is a powerful idea for Margie King, 70, who runs a family-owned funeral parlor in tiny Chester. Her son, John, a Democrat, lost a state legislative election to a white Republican, though the district was dominated by Democrats. She concluded that whites would not support black candidates. In the presidential race, she decided to back Clinton.

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But her son became an Obama volunteer, and she has decided to join him.

“It’s the way white America stood behind him,” she said, referring to Obama’s win in Iowa. “I’m just overwhelmed by it.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

Wallsten reported from Manchester, N.H., and Fausset from Columbia, S.C.


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