Riding Obama's coattails in Southern races

Times Staff Writer

Anton Gunn is a Democratic candidate for the statehouse. He is also a black man running in a majority-white district -- a swath of Old South countryside and new suburban sprawl that hasn't elected a Democrat in 24 years.

Two years ago, Gunn ran for the same office and lost. But he believes that 2008 is his year. He has learned a lot since then as state political director for Barack Obama's primary campaign in South Carolina.

Another plus: This time around, Obama will be at the top of the ticket -- and black voters, Gunn said, are excited like never before.

"If there is increased African American turnout," he said, "it's definitely going to help."

Obama's chances of winning South Carolina and its eight electoral votes appear slim: Statewide polls show the Democratic presidential nominee trailing John McCain, his Republican opponent, by double digits.

Even so, Democrats here and in other Republican-heavy Southern states hope to benefit from an anticipated surge of black voters eager to be a part of history, in spite of the winner-take-all rules of the general election.

Stacey Gore, a black voter in Gunn's district, said none of his black friends were dismayed by the fact that Obama was trailing in the polls here.

"Everybody I know is fired up," he said.

Gore said he would be voting for president for the first time in 12 years. The 45-year-old truck driver blames high gas prices and a weak economy on the Republicans, and he plans to vote for Obama.

He added that he didn't know much about Gunn -- though he would probably pull the lever for him.

"I'll probably vote straight Democrat," Gore said.

Such sentiments could give a boost to a number of down-ticket races in Southern states where McCain holds a commanding lead. In Mississippi, African American enthusiasm for Obama could help former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove -- a white, moderate Democrat -- in his bid to unseat Republican Sen. Roger Wicker.

In Louisiana, the same forces could help the reelection effort of Rep. William J. Jefferson, an African American who has been indicted on corruption charges. Black voters could help tip the scales for him in what may be a racially polarized runoff election Nov. 4.

Here in South Carolina -- where Republicans control the governorship and the state House and Senate -- Democrats are setting more modest goals. The excitement over Obama, plus economic worries, they say, could help them gain some statehouse victories.

But they are also upbeat about their party's longer-term prospects here -- in part because the Obama campaign is lavishing unprecedented attention on the state. Obama for America has two paid staffers in South Carolina, and more than 20 others are working for Obama as part of the Campaign for Change, a group funded by the Democratic National Committee.

Their presence is an attempt to harness the passion Obama stirred up here in the primary and put it to good use. About 15,000 volunteers helped the Obama campaign in its successful January primary effort in the state. Black voters were a major factor: About 295,000 turned out to vote in the primary, twice the total in 2004.

Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said the Obama camp did not want to let that kind of enthusiasm go to waste -- even if it might not be enough to make their candidate competitive.

"I think [the Obama campaign] is trying to achieve, frankly, a stronger Democratic Party everywhere," she said.

The move would appear to be part of Obama's "50-state strategy," which purports to put up a fight in states long dominated by the GOP. It is unclear, however, how many staffers are working for Obama in other Republican-heavy Southern states. The campaign would not disclose those numbers.

In South Carolina, Obama workers have been contacting volunteers and supporters who took part in the primary to ensure they show up Nov. 4. They were signing up new voters until Saturday's deadline. Gunn said that when Obama volunteers and staffers canvass in his district, they regularly put in a good word for him.

State election officials expect to have a net gain of 300,000 registered voters this year -- about 100,000 more than in 2004. Though Democrats are touting their efforts, Republican officials say they have been signing up new voters as well. (South Carolina voters do not register by party, so it is unclear who has the edge.)

In Gunn's district, the number of black registered voters has increased by 12% this year, while the number of white voters has grown by about 7%, according to an analysis provided by the state Democratic Party. Still, white voters -- more likely to vote Republican -- outnumber blacks 2 to 1.

As a result, Gunn, 35, knows he will have to find a good chunk of white support. His plan, he said, is to "go right into the belly of the beast, so to speak, to go out into traditionally conservative communities that wouldn't traditionally vote for a black candidate or a liberal candidate. That's what we learned from the Obama campaign -- you've got to go talk to voters where they are."

That means going door to door in the commuter suburbs that have sprung up here in Richland County, about half an hour northeast of the state capital. Gunn, at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds, earned a football scholarship to the nearby University of South Carolina and relies on that history as a common denominator: He hands out brochures with photos from his glory days as a starting center.

One recent night, he was stumping at a high school football game in Kershaw County, the more rural chunk of his district. The crowd was representative of the county -- about 70% white.

While hobnobbing with old friends, Gunn was approached by a white teenager, and it was apparent they had met before. The candidate greeted him warmly, then engaged him in a discussion of Kurt and Kyle Busch, siblings who are stars of the NASCAR circuit.

After the teen melted into the bleachers, Gunn noted that he wasn't old enough to vote.

"He's in 10th grade," he said, smiling. "But his parents are old enough."



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