Add another issue to the list confronting voters this fall: civil rights.
Everything from affirmative action to police stereotyping is galvanizing African-American voters - and could have a wide-ranging effect on contests from the presidential race to the Senate battle in New York.
A large black turnout - which helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992 - could aid Democrats from Al Gore to Hillary Rodham Clinton. "Black votes matter in a close election, and we are expecting a close election," says Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The battle for the civil rights high ground started in February in South Carolina, which became embroiled in a debate over allowing the Confederate flag to fly over the state capitol. Republican presidential candidates did not endear themselves to black voters by avoiding a stand on the issue. Sen. John McCain recently said he erred by not calling for removal of the flag. After Mr. McCain's shift, Vice President Gore challenged Gov. George W. Bush to acknowledge that the flag shouldn't fly above the state capitol building.
Then, earlier this month, the US Commission on Civil Rights weighed in with a report that was critical of Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida for ending affirmative action - a critique that may indirectly hurt his brother's campaign. It also found fault with George's home state of Texas, which was forced by court order to end affirmative action. The commission is expected to issue a draft report soon on police and race in New York City - a report that may influence the Senate race between Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton.
"Civil rights is potentially a minefield for Republican candidates," says Dana White of the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
Race relations get "pretty high" ratings as an issue that people care about, says Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Center for the People & the Press. In a poll last year, the center asked voters whether Gore or Mr. Bush would do the best job of improving conditions for minority groups. Gore won by 55 percent to 28 percent.
However, Bush is actually doing better among minority voters than most Republican candidates. Among black voters, he gets 14 percent of the vote. "I've never seen a Republican candidate with more than 8 to 9 percent," says Mr. Kohut. "I think Bush has gone out of his way to send signals he is concerned about minority groups."
There is no question that in a close election, black votes matter. In 1998, minority voters helped Democrats win in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland. In 1992, minority voters may have handed President Clinton victory.
Race may also be important in influencing white swing voters - a group of highly educated people who are often not tied to a political party, and who look closely at a candidate's civil rights record before they vote. "These white voters will be the ones who will decide the election," says David Bositis, an analyst with the Joint Center for Political Economic Studies in Washington.
This could be one reason why Republicans are particularly concerned about reports issued by the commission. "It's a highly partisan, cynical commission attempting a mean-spirited drive-by assault on Republicans," says Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Washington.
The commission is supposed to be an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding agency. However, its eight commissioners, equally appointed by the president and the Congress, is currently composed of four Democrats, three independents, and one Republican.
"It is a Clinton commission at the moment," says Mr. Bositis.
Police as political issue
Political pundits are particularly interested in the commission's coming report on New York's police practices and civil rights. Mrs. Clinton is likely to seize on anything critical of Mr. Giuliani in an area where he is most proud - his record on fighting crime. "When law and order spills over into insensitivity and lack of fairness, he runs into problems," says Lee Miringoff, of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Giuliani's campaign has denounced the coming report as a political slam. "This report should be considered a contribution to Mrs. Clinton's soft-money campaign account," said Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani's campaign manager.
The Commission denies it has political aims. "This report is a lot larger than any electoral politics in New York State or any other jurisdiction," says Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman. She notes that the commission decided to begin its investigation well before any senatorial candidates were announced.
A report that is critical of the New York Police Department may not hurt Giuliani too much, simply because he has already lost most minority votes. In polls, Mr. Miringoff says the mayor gets less than 10 percent of the African-American vote.
On a recent day in Harlem, voters said civil rights would be an important part of how they voted this fall. "As a black person, when I go in the voting booth, civil rights is in the back of my mind," says F. Cassagnol, a designer. "You know, when we walk down the street and see the police, we don't have a normal reaction - we think that at any time something could happen."
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