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Obama counting on black voter turnout

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2008

ST. LOUIS | After an aggressive push to register black voters using text messaging, ads on hip-hop radio stations and Internet videos using popular stars and free concerts, the Obama team is turning to the next task: making sure that black voters show up on Election Day in bigger numbers than ever before.

The campaign is going to places of worship and beauty salons in the urban centers of swing states in an effort to convince black citizens that their votes can make a difference.

The Republicans "are counting on us not to show up," Jurnee Smollett told a predominantly young and black audience at the National Step Show championships in Philadelphia in September.

"They are scared in their boots. They know we single-handedly could put that man in office."

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From Missouri to Florida, the campaign is reminding voters how close the 2004 election was.

"Bush won in Florida by 380,000 votes in 2004," Sen. Barack Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, told supporters in a recent fundraising e-mail. "If you look at the number of registered African Americans who did not turnout in 2004, it's over a half million; 900,000 registered young voters in 2004. ... We have enough base voters in Florida to win the election if we can just turn them out."

Mr. Obama's wife, Michelle, told Floridians recently that 600,000 votes "can make and change the course of not just this election but this country."

She urged those in the crowd to speak with their friends who aren't registered or who "don't think their votes will count."

But there are indications that voters who want to make history by electing the nation's first black president could be counterbalanced by racists. Even Obama supporters in battleground states acknowledge some people refer to the candidate in derogatory terms or they hear people making jokes about an Obama assassination.

An Irondale, Mo., home flies a Confederate flag and a sign reading, "A vote for Obama is a vote for Osama."

A Dixon, Mo., man is heckled some days around town for proudly wearing an Obama button.

"There's not really a nice way to say this. These are farmers. They are not ready for much of a change. People are still not ready for a black president the same way they are not OK with a lady president," said Matt Huyser, 25, of Hatton, Mo.

A St. Louis firefighter acknowledges that the Illinois Democrat's stance is more in line with his economic values but that he equates Mr. Obama with a black co-worker who he said has unfairly promoted other black firefighters.

The Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, has conceded the black vote to Mr. Obama but may be earning white voters by default.

"I suppose I will vote for McCain, but it's really just because I won't vote for Obama," said Eddie Siscoe, who was selling Christmas decorations with her husband at a craft fair in Hatton.

She said her opposition to Mr. Obama was based mainly on his trip to Europe and because she considers him to be a "smart aleck."

"He put on this big show and acted like he was already president," she said.

Gerald Siscoe was more blunt: "If a black man is elected president, it would shock the world if that happened, in more ways than one."

Mr. Obama recently told ABC7/News Channel 8 in an interview that racism was not an issue.

"The fact of the matter is people have been continually looking for how race will impact this campaign. And yet, I'm here, 30 days out, competitive in Virginia," he said.

Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said he thinks Mr. McCain will earn more of the minority vote than estimated.

"People will vote for the candidate that most closely reflects their values and the vision they have for where America should go," he said. "John McCain much more reflects the center-right position in this country no matter what your skin color is."

George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 thanks to 11 percent of black voters, including higher percentages in battleground Ohio, where he captured 16 percent, and Virginia, where he won 12 percent.

This year, "there are no swing African-American voters," said Bill McInturff, Mr. McCain's chief pollster.

He said in a recent conference call with reporters that all polls show Mr. McCain winning just 2 percent of black voters but that the "swing" Hispanic vote is small but critical.

"Given we have an African-American candidate and those margins, there's not much room for movement there. You're left with what I describe as 'soft and persuadable white voters,' " who make up about 20 percent of the electorate, he said.

At the Roots 'N Blues 'N BBQ Festival in downtown Columbia, Mo., on Friday night, Obama volunteers with clipboards were making sure people were registered to vote.

Local surrogates were also on hand to talk up the Democratic ticket. State Sen. Chuck Graham of the Columbia area predicted that record numbers of people will show up at the polls.

"If we get 80 or 90 percent turnout among African-Americans for the first time, I think we could have five-hour lines in St. Louis," Mr. Graham said.

The numbers will matter here and in battlegrounds Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. The candidates and some of their Hollywood and rock-star supporters have made visits to those states.

Team Obama has registered hundreds of thousands of first-time voters, who polls show favor the Democrat by a 2-1 margin.

Last weekend in a final registration push in the urban centers of Philadelphia, Miami and Columbus, Ohio, the campaign hosted free concerts with big names such as Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen. Also hitting the campaign trail were Grammy winner John Legend, NBA star LeBron James and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

The campaign used its text-message service to issue reminders about the registration deadline and will inform supporters about early voting locations and encourage them to go to the polls on Election Day.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last week that nearly 40 percent of the nearly 200,000 early voters in Georgia are black.

The cover of the November 2008 Ebony magazine declares, "Why Barack Obama must be our next president." The article inside asks: "President Obama: What could it mean for Black America?"

It features Mr. Obama saying earlier this year, "The day I become president, the world looks at America differently and America looks at itself differently."

On Ebony's cover are Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys, who appear together in an online Obama voter registration video.

Black voters interviewed for this story said they were wary of getting their hopes up for an election that could change the lives of the next generation.

A Richmond airport employee said, with tears in her eyes, that her father, in his 60s, is voting for the first time because of Mr. Obama.

Three older women from Oklahoma drove to Denver to witness Mr. Obama's convention speech in person, recognizing that they could be a part of history. Two of them plan to be first-time voters this fall.

• Explore different election-night scenarios with our 'Road to 270' interactive electoral college map.