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For Obama, and Clinton too

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Times Staff Writer

. -- Catherine Cowans is a black supporter of Barack Obama who is disappointed by the Clinton campaign’s recent attacks on her candidate.

With all the dirt that’s been flung at Hillary Rodham Clinton over the years, Cowans said, “she shouldn’t really attack him.” But she doesn’t think that the New York senator’s jabs add up to an irredeemable sin. If Clinton becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, the 48-year-old hairdresser said, she will vote for her.

“I’m not angry at her,” Cowans said recently during a lull at her beauty salon in this sleepy Delta city. “I still like Hillary.”

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Clinton’s newfound pugnacity may have helped her win primary contests last week in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, but as a long-term strategy it carries an inherent risk: By aggressively attacking Obama, who is so widely embraced by the black electorate, Clinton could deplete her own deep reservoir of popularity among African American voters -- a key source of her strength as a national political figure.

As Mississippi prepares for its first consequential Democratic primary in years on Tuesday, a number of black supporters of Obama said that Clinton had not yet crossed a line with her attacks.

Apparently she has goodwill to spare.

John Bender, a pro-Obama voter from Indianola, has been watching in recent days as the Clinton camp questioned Obama’s experience, highlighted his connections to indicted fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko and allegedly circulated a photo of the Illinois senator in Somalian tribal dress.

But Bender, 48, chalked that up to the Clintons -- the candidate and her husband, the former president -- being the Clintons: aggressive, competitive, tough. In fact, he said, he was thankful that Hillary Clinton was toughening Obama up. He figures the Republicans will be even less cordial if Obama makes it to the general election.

“A weak man can’t make it,” he said.

Obama’s return fire has included a call for Clinton to release her tax returns, but he also had a counterattack customized for Mississippi. Last week, his campaign dug up comments Clinton made in October in which she disparaged the state as being backward for failing to elect female lawmakers.

In the eyes of Mississippi’s African Americans, who make up more than half of the state’s Democratic voters, it all amounts to an uncomfortable family feud between two well-liked candidates.

“I tell you, that Democratic [race] is in a dead heat,” a DJ said between songs Thursday on WHLH, a popular Jackson gospel station known as Hallelujah 95.5 FM. “I hope they find some peace!”

A number of voters here said they strongly favored seeing Clinton and Obama team up on the Democratic ticket in November, regardless of who gets the nomination for the top spot. State Rep. Earle S. Banks, an African American who supports Obama, said the Illinois senator’s presence on the ticket could spur dramatic increases in black turnout. And that, he said, potentially could put Mississippi in the Democratic column for the first time since 1976, when it went to Jimmy Carter.

While campaigning in Mississippi on Friday, Clinton raised the possibility that Obama could be her vice presidential choice, an idea she had hinted at earlier in the week in a TV interview.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, I wish I could vote for both of you,’ ” she told voters in Hattiesburg, according to the Associated Press. “Well, that might be possible someday. But first I need your vote on Tuesday.”

A tour of the Delta region last week found that Clinton maintains fervent support among African Americans.

Tamika Hart, who owns a women’s clothing store in Indianola, said she recently had a health scare while she was uninsured. That converted her to Clinton, who is a longtime advocate for universal healthcare. But Hart, 27, said she felt some remorse that she’d be voting against Obama.

“I just wish he wasn’t running against her,” she said.

In Yazoo City, Burger King worker Marlon Anderson, 26, said he wasn’t so impressed with the idea of electing the first black president. He said he and his friends in this struggling city didn’t have many good jobs to choose from. And, he said, the Clintons proved their worth when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

“Things were way better than now,” he said.

But it is Obama who is considered the favorite here: Recent polls have him leading Clinton by 6 to 24 points. Indeed, during the lunch rush Thursday at Fannie’s Cafe, a downtown soul food joint, it was difficult to find a black Clinton voter.

All of the Obama backers interviewed said they would get behind the former first lady if she won the nomination.

“Sure I would,” said Edward Jones, a tire-shop worker who called Clinton’s tactics “dirty.” “I think we’ve got the best Democratic candidates we’ve ever had this year.”

Later that evening, Clinton arrived at a large gymnasium in Canton to speak at a dinner sponsored by the state Democratic Party. In an attempt to make amends for her negative comments about Mississippi, she extolled the state’s great writers, its blues music, and the fact that the world’s first lung transplant happened here.

The applause was polite from a mixed-race crowd of about 2,000. The real energy seemed to be outside, where a group of Clinton and Obama supporters had squared off.

In the Clinton camp, a white woman with a banjo warbled a custom-written song: “I’m a Hill, Hill, Hill, Hillary Gal.”

The Obama supporters, holding a large sign, chanted their candidate’s name. Most said they would rally behind Clinton if she were to get the nomination. There were a few, however, who could not see themselves voting for her.

Schakos Ozmax, 58, a Sudanese-born healthcare worker from Ridgeland, said he would support independent candidate Ralph Nader if Obama lost the nomination. He held the Clinton camp responsible for circulating the photo of Obama in Somalian dress. Ozmax, a Muslim, saw it as a crass attempt to evoke a fear of all Muslims.

“You cannot treat your party members like they are your enemies,” he said.

--

richard.fausset@latimes.com


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