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Politics of doubt gnaw at black voters in S.C.

Many feel whites won't back Obama

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / November 9, 2007

SUMTER, S.C. - History whispers to black voters here in South Carolina not to get their hopes up when Senator Barack Obama comes to town and says he can win the presidency.

Sure, the Illinois Democrat may be the most viable African-American candidate ever, they say. But decades of dreams dashed in this deeply race-conscious state make them doubt that white voters around the country will ever put a black man in charge.

"Personally, I don't think he has a chance in hell," said Leah Josey, a 20-year-old English major at Morris College, a Baptist school in Sumter. "All those white people? Come on."

Such sentiments are prevalent among black South Carolinians, who are expected to make up nearly half of voters in the Democratic primary in January. Nearly a third of black voters surveyed in a statewide poll in September said white Americans would not vote for a black presidential candidate.

That has flipped the issue of electability on its head in the Democratic primary race, in which Senator Hillary Clinton's rivals have suggested she is too polarizing to win. Here, some blacks see the New York Democrat as a safer choice than Obama, believing she has a better chance of recapturing the presidency for the party - a desire that polls and interviews suggest is more urgent to African-American voters than to Democrats overall.

Right or wrong, the perception that Obama is unelectable in white America remains an obstacle for him in this key early primary state. The notion is one he and his campaign are working to erase.

"Obama's chief opponents are 'Mr. and Mrs. He-can't-win,' " said I.S. Leevy Johnson, a lawyer and power broker in Columbia who is active in Obama's campaign. "You hear it a lot because historically that has been the case."

Obama took on the doubters himself in appearances last weekend, pleading with mostly black audiences not to write him off. In front of a courthouse in Manning, S.C., where one of the original school desegregation cases was filed, he urged the crowd to have the courage to swallow their fears, as civil rights pioneers had before them.

"I've heard that some folks in the barber shops, beauty shops - you know better than I - say to themselves, 'I like Obama . . . But I'm just not sure America's ready,' " Obama said at an NAACP dinner in Sumter Friday night.

"Say it!" someone called out, egging him on, and Obama continued mimicking the nay-sayers.

"I'm not sure other folks are ready. I'm not sure he can win."

"Preach!"

"Don't go around telling me I can't do something," Obama said, nearly yelling now. "Because if you're telling me I can't do something, that means you're telling your child they can't do something. That means you're telling yourself you can't do something. I don't believe that I can't."

In South Carolina, the doubts are rooted in experience. Six decades after their forebears sparked the civil rights movement, African-Americans know that no black candidate has won statewide office, though the state is 29 percent black. Debate persists over the Confederate flag. A barbecue chef who hands out racist leaflets recently tried to force supermarkets to stock his sauce despite their objections to his views.

Skepticism in black communities here about Obama's chances surfaced in February, when he made his inaugural trip as a candidate. A prominent black state senator, Robert Ford, had been widely quoted at the time saying he would back Clinton, expressing fear that Obama's presence on the ticket would hurt the party by drawing more Republicans to the polls to vote against him.

"It's a slim possibility for him to get the nomination, but then everybody else is doomed," Ford said. He later apologized, saying that Clinton was not the only Democrat who could win.

In the nine months since, Obama's campaign has doggedly courted African-American leaders, worked the barber shops and beauty parlors, held "faith forums" with religious voters, and aired two spots on black radio - one a personal tale about growing up without a father, the other an ad by US Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. invoking the civil rights work of his father, who won the 1988 South Carolina Democratic primary.

Obama, as he woos both culturally conservative black churchgoers and liberal white voters, must strike a delicate balance, one illustrated by a South Carolina gospel tour his campaign put on last month. Despite protests from gay-rights advocates about the inclusion of Grammy-winning singer Donnie McClurkin, who has called homosexuality a "curse," Obama's campaign pointedly kept him on the program.

Political analysts and black leaders describe Obama's challenge this way: He must make overtures to African-American voters while not alienating white voters, which would only confirm fears among blacks that whites will be turned off by him.

Though former senator John Edwards of North Carolina won the South Carolina primary in 2004 with help from black political leaders, polls show that the contest for African-American voters here this year has been largely between Obama and Clinton, whose husband, former president Bill Clinton, remains a beloved figure in black communities.

Some voters say African-Americans are especially concerned about electability because they believe the last seven years under a Republican president have been particularly damaging to their communities, and they fear another GOP victory next November.

"We're right back to where we were 30 or 40 years ago," said Joan Conyers, a 59-year-old on disability from Lane, S.C., who saw Obama in Manning.

David Bositis, a specialist on black voting patterns for the nonpartisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, said that black voters, unlike whites, opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, and that Bush's approval ratings are lower among blacks than among the public overall.

To overcome concerns that he cannot win, Obama is showcasing his past success in white precincts in Illinois and trumpeting his competitive standing - polls suggest a three-way race - in Iowa, an overwhelmingly white state that holds caucuses before South Carolina votes in January. Obama's campaign contends an Iowa victory would send a strong signal about his electability.

"He does that, nobody beats him in South Carolina," said US Representative James Clyburn, a prominent black political leader in the state who is neutral in the primary.

As black voters wrestle with Obama's electability, the excitement he generates in black audiences is palpable.

Even Josey, the Morris student pessimistic about his chances, allows herself to dream.

"I think he can do big things," she said.

Jerome McCray, 42, who operates Today's Fashions in downtown Manning, said people have to realize that if no one has the courage to stand up, nothing will change.

"If you don't, who will?" said McCray, who is deciding between Clinton and Obama. "You have to be counted."

One person who has heard all this before is Kevin Johnson, Manning's 47-year-old mayor, who was elected in 2000 as the city's first black leader. When he first ran, he said, people told him the same thing they are telling Obama today.

"That's why I'm so passionate about this," Johnson said as well-wishers greeted him in the center of his city. "People have to put that doubt aside."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com

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