Politics of race ensnare Democrats

Clinton and Obama declare a truce in war of words, but the contest has been altered.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama speak during a Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas. With the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth approaching, Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton have declared a truce in their war of words over race. The Democratic presidential contest is nonetheless altered.

As America pauses to mark the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton have declared a truce in their war of words over race. But the Democratic presidential contest has been altered nonetheless.

No longer can Senator Obama, the nation's first African-American presidential candidate with a serious chance of winning the election, make allusions to the historic nature of his candidacy without sparking memories of the charges and countercharges that took the Democratic contest away from issues and onto the politics of identity.

And no longer can anyone claim that Obama has succeeded in transcending race in a country with such a troubled racial history. In the latest wrinkle, Obama now faces questions about the magazine published by his church in Chicago, and its decision last year to honor the controversial black minister Louis Farrakhan. Such a remote connection to Obama might never have been worthy of comment in a mainstream publication like The Washington Post, but all the recent race talk has provided the peg.

The most immediate, measurable impact of the race flap on the Democratic contest may be in polls showing that African-American voters have shifted dramatically away from supporting Senator Clinton and toward supporting Obama. The latest Washington Post poll shows African-American Democrats now prefer Obama 60 percent to 32 percent compared with a month ago, when they favored Clinton 52 percent to 39 percent. Other polls, such as the latest CBS News poll, also show Obama now beating Clinton among blacks.

Another factor that may have affected black opinion could be Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses – a largely white state. In the past, many African-Americans had stated a reluctance to support Obama because they felt that the country wasn't ready to elect a black president. Obama also looks strong heading into the South Carolina primary on Jan. 26, where nearly half the Democratic electorate is black, and could do well in the Nevada caucuses this Saturday, especially after winning the endorsement of the state's most powerful union, the culinary workers.

"I think they [the Clintons] have lost some goodwill among the black community over what happened," says David Bositis, an expert on the black vote at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "The question is, how bad is it?"

The next question is, why would Clinton and her husband, the ex-president, deliberately appear to go after Obama in a way that targeted him racially, implying, for example, that Obama was comparing himself to Dr. King. While campaigning in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton described herself as representing "the real change," and derided Obama's message of hope as raising "false hopes."

Obama joined the battle in his reply on the stump, that King and President Kennedy would never have pushed the nation on race and on space travel if they had not had hope. But in the view of some analysts of racial politics, it was Clinton and her surrogates who took the discussion in an unwarranted direction. Clinton herself raised the hackles of many black voters when her comments on President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act seemed to diminish the role of civil rights activists like King.

Clinton surrogates also stirred the pot – including Bill Clinton, who described Obama's history on the Iraq war as a "fairy tale," a comment that some African-Americans took to refer to his entire candidacy. Clinton friend Bob Johnson, the wealthy founder of Black Entertainment Television, also raised eyebrows when he seemed to compare Obama to actor Sidney Poitier's character in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," a black man trying to fit into white society.

The Clintons had long enjoyed significant support among black voters, going back to Bill Clinton's presidency, when writer Toni Morrison famous dubbed him the nation's "first black president." Facing the prospect of an actual black president, who would in the process deny Hillary Clinton her own history-making role as the first woman president, the Clintons appeared to calculate that they had to stop Obama's momentum, and force him into a topic that he had largely avoided on the campaign trail, his race, say critics of the Clintons.

Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Center at the University of Maryland and a onetime policy aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, sees the Clintons as having deliberately sparked the controversy.

"When you look at Hillary's wide expanse of people who went after Barack – that had to be some kind of campaign strategy," says Mr. Walters. "I think [it happened] mainly born of fear and frustration that he was closing very rapidly, and could win not only Iowa but New Hampshire and overtake her in the polls. And they had to do something to begin to bring his numbers down."

He agrees that Clinton could lose black votes by highlighting Obama's race, but the upside for her may be a gain in white votes. "Some of the more conservative aspects of his constituency could pull away," he says.

Black leaders who have declined to take sides, such as Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, sought to put the debate to rest earlier this week, in a press conference. He praised Obama, Clinton, and the third leading Democratic candidate John Edwards for their "commitment to equality." But there's little doubt that if the race issue flares up again, the party as a whole will suffer, especially if black voters opt to sit out the November election, if Clinton is the nominee, analysts say.

"Everyone lost to some degree," says Mr. Bositis. "The Democrats didn't need that to come up."

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