Sen. Barack Obama is striking a delicate balance to capture black voters but avoid becoming the stereotype that has sunk past black hopefuls for the White House.
The Illinois Democrat is running ads in South Carolina to shore up support among black voters and told a black audience Friday his election would create a "transformation" of U.S. race relations. However, political analysts and prominent black leaders observing the 2008 presidential race say Mr. Obama, who trails Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among blacks, has not locked up the community's vote.
"He's not running for president of black America, but for all of America, but he has to be particularly sensitive not to lose out on this crucial voting bloc," said political consultant Morris Reid, managing director at the Westin Rinehart Group. "Most African-American candidates running for president thus far have not had such a mainstream message."
Mr. Obama is a much different candidate than the Rev. Al Sharpton, who ran in 2004, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who ran twice in the 1980s, Mr. Reid said. He would be wise to continue trying to be a candidate for everyone instead of getting pigeonholed as the candidate only concerned about minority rights. Mr. Obama mastered this idea by giving a "non-answer" to a question about reparations during last week's debate, Mr. Reid said.
"If you want him to do what Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson did, you don't want him to be a winning candidate," said Mr. Reid, who is hosting a fundraiser soon for Mrs. Clinton.
Kurt Schmoke, dean at Howard University Law School, agreed.
"Because he doesn't come out of the civil rights leadership tradition, nor did he build his career in [the] civil rights movement, it's harder to label him in the way people labeled Reverend Jackson and Reverend Sharpton," said Mr. Schmoke, a former mayor of Baltimore.
"More people talk about him as a senator who happens to be black. Obama's is a legitimate candidacy, while Reverend Jackson's campaign was primarily a voter-registration effort and Sharpton's was somewhat of a protest movement," he said.
David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, also noted the senator's credentials and called him "the first serious black candidate who has run for president."
Most polls show Mrs. Clinton, of New York, is the strong favorite among black Democrats. A recent CNN poll shows her leading Mr. Obama by 16 points in the key early primary state of South Carolina among black voters, who make up nearly half the Democratic primary electorate there.
Rep. Artur Davis and others caution that past polls include too-small samples of black voters. Mr. Davis, Alabama Democrat, an Obama supporter, pointed to a survey released last week showing a "dramatic turnaround" among black voters in his state.
The mid-July Capital Survey Research Center poll of 841 likely Alabama voters showed Mr. Obama four points behind, within striking distance of Mrs. Clinton. Her lead in the same poll in April had been 16 points. Among that state's black voters, Mr. Obama leads Mrs. Clinton by 21 points. Two months ago, she led him by eight points.
"Black voters are beginning to put aside their skepticism," Mr. Davis said, acknowledging that the Clinton family is "very much admired in the black community."
"As black voters become more aware of Barack Obama and the viability of his candidacy, you are seeing significant movement," he said. "Their excitement is building as the country is seriously contemplating ... electing [him]. The country was not ready to elect a black president in 1984 and 1988, no matter what Jesse Jackson's qualifications."
Still, the Obama campaign is stepping up its efforts to reach black voters, particularly in South Carolina. His new radio ads, running on 36 urban and gospel stations in the South's first primary state, are mostly biographical and outline the senator's experience as a Chicago community organizer.
"Despite all the progress that has been made, we still have more work to do," Mr. Obama says in the ad, which features a deep-voiced male narrator calling the senator a "Christian family man" and a "soldier for justice."
"We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America," he says. "We've got more work to do when it takes a hurricane and bodies floating through a street for us to recognize race and poverty in this country."
On the stump in front of both black and white audiences, Mr. Obama talks about reforming health care and education as a way to "solve the race problem."
He also doesn't shy away from the historic aspect of his candidacy.
"The day I'm inaugurated, the country looks at itself differently," Mr. Obama said Friday at an Urban League meeting in St. Louis. "Don't underestimate that power. Don't underestimate the transformation."
Urban League President Marc Morial said on CNN Sunday that while Mr. Obama's candidacy has symbolic meaning, the black vote is "in play."
"I think what it shows is the maturity of the African-American electorate in South Carolina and across the nation .... No one can take the vote of African Americans for granted in this election cycle," the former mayor of New Orleans said on "Late Edition." "What we have in the Democratic side, at this point, is competition."
Mrs. Clinton has been piling up endorsements from black officeholders and celebrities, last week nabbing the support of musician Quincy Jones.
"Hillary Clinton is one of my favorite ladies on this planet, who I've known for a long, long time and who I believe in and will go to the ends of the earth for," Mr. Jones said in a video tribute to Mrs. Clinton at a lunch event with 200 black men supporting her candidacy.
Minyon Moore, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign, said black voters want a nominee with a record of "championing the issues that are important to our community," such as education and health care.
"She's not building it; she brings that to the table. There's a trust level there for her because of her history," Miss Moore said.