CHARLOTTE - The walls of Simmons' Fourth Ward restaurant are covered with faded clippings and autographed photos of black celebrities who squeezed into the diner for fried chicken, ribs, and smothered pork chops.
R&B singer Patti LaBelle is on the wall. So are actor Danny Glover and boxing champ Evander Holyfield. One face is missing: Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate and man of the hour in the black community. Over the din of the lunchtime crowd, owner Torrence Simmons, 53, said he has tried to get Obama to visit before Tuesday's North Carolina primary, but the Illinois senator's campaign told him he could not fit in a stop.
Simmons said he also knows that Obama can't be too closely identified with the black community if he wants to attract white, blue-collar voters - a constituency Obama has lost decisively in recent primaries. And the furor over Obama's association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., the candidate's outspoken former minister, underscores the challenge the candidate faces in winning over working-class whites.
According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Obama's aura of inevitability in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination has diminished following his loss in the Pennsylvania primary and the furor over his former pastor. While the poll was conducted Friday through Tuesday, largely before Obama's news conference on Tuesday denouncing Wright, it indicated that the percentage of Democrats who expected Obama to win the Democratic nomination had dropped to 51 percent, from 69 percent a month ago.
Obama has cut back on his campaigning in the African-American community in the months since his highly publicized speech at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Atlanta - even as black voters in places like Charlotte are mobilizing on his behalf as never before.
Now, after the Wright controversy and disappointing showings in the Pennsylvania and Ohio primaries, Tuesday's election in North Carolina looms as Obama's firewall: A big enough win here could assure him a victory in both pledged delegates and the national popular vote, increasing pressure on his rival Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race.
If that happens, it will be largely because the black community, which could represent up to 40 percent of all votes cast, carried him to victory with unprecedented levels of support. And the irony - a black presidential candidate who depends on black votes but avoids campaigning in black neighborhoods - doesn't bother Simmons at all.
"Oh yeah," he said. "I feel that way."
Isaac Onah, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, said Simmons is typical of most black voters who understand that Obama's lower profile in their community is necessary to his ability to run a broad-based campaign. And African-American voters, who have become more supportive of Obama as the campaign has gone on, are not likely to abandon him because he turned his back on Wright.
"I think black voters are saying to themselves, 'Why isn't Reverend Wright shutting up?' " Onah said.
Like Simmons, thousands of black voters in North Carolina are helping to organize their communities like never before. In interviews with black voters last week in Charlotte, many said they understood why Obama could not run as the candidate of the black community. And their message to Obama was clear: Don't worry, we've got your back.
"Obama is walking a thin line" between relying on black support and avoiding too much identification with the black community, said Darryl Carson, a 41-year-old industrial clerk. But black voters "are going to vote for him because we want to see him in there."
At the upscale South Park shopping mall on the edge of the city, Monica Garrett, 35, said Obama hasn't "catered to the African-American community at all, and he isn't supposed to."
If you're running for president, Garrett said, "You can't alienate yourself from the majority" by identifying too closely with African-Americans.
After an initially cool reception, the relationship between Obama and black voters blossomed into a full embrace after the Iowa caucuses, where the senator proved he was a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. A month later in South Carolina, the state with the largest proportion of black voters, Obama took 80 percent of the black vote en route to a 55 percent-to-27 percent victory over Clinton. Since then, polls have indicated that his support among African-Americans is rising to nearly 90 percent.
As that percentage skyrocketed, however, Obama struggled to draw white, working-class voters, Clinton's core constituency, in the Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries. After losing both by roughly 10 percent margins, Obama has focused on winning over white blue-collar Democrats, in the process bypassing some opportunities to campaign in black areas.
Wright became a campaign issue in early March when videos of his thundering sermons, accusing the government of racism and warmongering, began showing up on the Internet. Obama, in a widely hailed speech on race, rejected Wright's more inflammatory rhetoric but stopped short of disavowing his longtime minister.
But when Wright spoke out in three national forums last week - including a defiant, unapologetic news conference in Washington on Monday - Obama forcefully broke ties with him. Obama said he was "appalled" by Wright's "performance," adding that the minister's remarks were insulting and divisive.
"I'm sure he would like to get his campaign back on track by a double-digit victory" in North Carolina, said William A. Galston, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank. And despite the Wright controversy, "I would assume, sight unseen, that whatever [Obama's] vote total is, that 50 percent of it or more will come from the African-American community."
Still, Obama's struggles in Ohio and Pennsylvania "had to have given him pause," Galston said. If Obama is to win the nomination and the presidency, a key test will be "how he can do in white areas, particularly small-town and rural, outside the upscale metro and academic communities where he's done well."
That means Obama must campaign in those areas at the expense of the black community, Galston said. And black voters in Charlotte seemed to understand.
B.B. De Laine, a retired school district employee and a Charlotte civil rights activist, likened the support for Obama among African-Americans to a survival skill black people have developed to become successful in white-majority society.
"Some black people have been very good at navigating the waters they have to navigate," carefully choosing which racial battles to fight, said De Laine, who led sit-ins to integrate Charlotte lunch counters in the 1960s. White people "don't understand that process to the extent that we do. If we don't understand that, Obama won't win."
At the South Park mall, Ama Owusuaa said she believes black North Carolinians understand that Obama needs their support to win but "doesn't want to alienate white voters."
Even a local hip-hop radio station seems to agree, issuing a call for all blacks to come out to the polls and carry Obama to the big victory that he needs.
"They put it out there - 'We have to vote for him in large numbers, like we've never seen before,' " said Owusuaa, 23. "And they were specifically saying, `Vote for Obama.' "