Black voters have been deeply loyal to the Democratic Party and to the Clintons, but they are more devoted to the dream of having a black president for the first time.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been engaged in racially tinged political banter with Sen. Barack Obama since her win in New Hampshire, is losing ground in polls with black voters nationally and in South Carolina, where about half of Democratic primary voters will be black.
Morris Reid, a former Clinton administration staffer, said Mr. Obama’s ascendancy in the campaign is the “worst-case scenario” for Mrs. Clinton, who is in “no-win situation” with black voters.
“This movement has become bigger than Barack Obama, as it always does, and so in the annals of history, the question will come down to whether the Clintons stopped the man who could have become the first black president or they stood in the way of him becoming the first black president,” said Mr. Reid, managing partner with Westin-Rinehart, a political consulting firm.
“Anything the Clintons would typically do to another opponent simply doesn’t work with Obama. It just doesn’t, because the smallest of things, criticisms, whatever becomes front-page news.”
In South Carolina, the fight between the Clintons and the Obama campaign is dividing the party, Democratic officials said yesterday.
“I really don’t think race itself or gender for that matter should be part of the discussion right now, but it is, it absolutely is,” said Joe Werner, the state Democratic Party executive director.
“We’ve got a few e-mails from folks asking us, ‘Why does it have to be this way?’ For them to be talking about race seems counterproductive to the [civil rights] cause,” Mr. Werner said.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton said it took President Lyndon B. Johnson to pass civil rights legislation, explaining that great speeches, namely Mr. Obama’s, are nothing without people who can achieve results.
That did not go over well with black lawmakers, who viewed that statement as a slight to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
Coupled with her husband’s comments that Mr. Obama’s “consistent antiwar position” was a “fairy tale,” the Clintons were forced to spend the past weekend explaining what they meant — Mrs. Clinton on NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert and Mr. Clinton on “The Al Sharpton Show” on radio.
Pollsters who have been tracking the ebb and flow of the Democratic vote in the state say the furor over Mrs. Clinton’s remarks has worked in Mr. Obama’s favor.
“It’s a battle over the legacy of King that has turned into a political, racing issue,” said Matthew Towery, pollster for the Atlanta-based Insider/Advantage survey, which has been polling in South Carolina, where its latest surveys have shown Mr. Obama ahead as a result of strong support from black voters.
“There’s a raging debate whether the Obama camp is distorting or using the remarks by both Clintons. As a result, it has created a supercharged battle in the African-American community on both sides,” Mr. Towery said yesterday.
The two candidates were tied at 33 percent in South Carolina last month, but a Rasmussen poll released yesterday found Mr. Obama leading with 38 percent of the likely Democratic voters compared with Mrs. Clinton’s 33 percent. Among black voters, Mr. Obama leads Mrs. Clinton 53 percent to 30 percent. She leads 40 percent to 21 percent among whites.
Nationally, Rasmussen shows Mr. Obama is leading Mrs. Clinton 66 percent to 16 percent among blacks. She leads among whites 41 percent to 27 percent.
But Eddie N. Williams, who helped many black activists of the civil rights era to become politicians as president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the entire discussion is “nonsense.”
“Much of what I’ve heard about King and Johnson is silly and misinterprets the civil rights movement and its history. It was not either/or, it was both/and,” Mr. Williams said.
As a former protege of Louis E. Martin, Mr. Johnson’s political adviser on civil rights issues, Mr. Williams said he was regaled by his mentor’s stories of how hard it was to get King and his allies into meetings with Mr. Johnson.
And while it was King’s mobilizing the people to apply pressure on politicians and Mr. Johnson who sent the legislation to Congress, without senators such as Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and many others, nothing would have been accomplished.
Both campaigns yesterday signaled a truce has been orchestrated.
Mr. Obama pulled reporters into a press availability yesterday to lament the “unfortunate” tone that has consumed the Democratic campaign, and instead of seizing an opportunity to push back against Mrs. Clinton’s recent remarks assailing his record, he lauded her own efforts.
“I don’t want the campaign at this stage to degenerate into so much tit-for-tat, back-and-forth that we lose sight of why all of us are doing this,” he said. “We’ve got too much at stake at this time in our history to be engaging in this kind of silliness, and I suspect that the other candidates may feel the same way.”
The Clinton campaign then released a statement from Mrs. Clinton saying they must seek common ground.
“We differ on a lot of things. And it is critical to have the right kind of discussion on where we stand. But when it comes to civil rights and our commitment to diversity, when it comes to our heroes — President John F. Kennedy and Dr. King — Senator Obama and I are on the same side,” Mrs. Clinton said.
• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report from Reno, Nev.