- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Black lawmakers in South Carolina, unconvinced that America is ready for a black president, are sticking by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton even as black voters flock to support Sen. Barack Obama.

“If Obama gets the nomination, I will be right here supporting him, but the United States I know is only capable of electing one black senator and one black governor at a time,” said South Carolina state Sen. Robert Ford, a Democrat who has endorsed Mrs. Clinton.

Mr. Ford noted that strong black candidates in both parties, such as Democratic Leadership Council Chairman Harold E. Ford Jr. and former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, have lost races that “they were more than qualified to win.”

“I hate to say it, but I don’t see how that equates to a black president,” he said.

Polls show Mr. Obama poised for an easy victory over Mrs. Clinton in South Carolina on Jan. 26 now that the state’s large black population — it typically makes up half the Democratic primary vote there — has swung to the senator from Illinois.

A Survey USA poll of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina released Monday showed Mr. Obama ahead of Mrs. Clinton by 50 percent to 30 percent. Also, the 20-percentage-point lead among black voters that Mr. Obama had before his win in the Iowa caucuses is now a difference of 46 points. The survey of 579 likely voters was conducted from Thursday to Sunday and had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points.

Mr. Obama’s win in Iowa and strong performance in New Hampshire, two of the whitest states in the union, have done more than any endorsement could to give black voters confidence that whites will support an Obama nomination and presidency.

South Carolina Rep. J. Seth Whipper, a Democrat who also has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, said this may be one of those times when elected officials are following the lead of the electorate.

“We take for granted the amount of change we have made in this country and how far we’ve come,” he said. “If you look at the numbers of African-Americans in leadership positions on Wall Street, in government, the increasing number of black elected officials in cities and districts that are majority white, most of them we don’t even know about because it is becoming so commonplace.”

State Sen. John W. Matthews Jr. said blacks will not have confidence that whites will vote for Mr. Obama in the general election until they see the results of primaries in states with minority populations more representative of the nation.

“It’s a totally different marketing and election process in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Mr. Matthews said.

He said that because both these states are more than 94 percent white, negative images and biases against blacks are less prominent in local news coverage. Also, large blocs of independent voters, helped by easy party switching in both states, have their pick of several candidates from both parties, while the South Carolina race is likely to be head-to-head.

“Once that happens, I think people will have to focus more on the issues, and that is where Hillary is stronger,” Mr. Matthews said.

Both men said Mrs. Clinton would be hard-pressed to win in South Carolina because of the overwhelming symbolism of the Obama campaign, regardless of lawmaker endorsements. In 1988, the state went to Jesse Jackson in his White House bid.

“It’s going to hard to get our people to support the best candidate, because I voted symbolism for Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm [in 1972]. It will be hard to keep our voters from doing that,” Robert Ford said.

Political analyst Melissa Harris-Lacewell said Mr. Obama’s ascendancy could hurt the clout of black lawmakers, who historically have controlled considerable sway in how blacks vote.

“Winning New Hampshire, he gets 85 percent of the vote in South Carolina easily. The civil rights leadership is already beginning to eat crow and push towards him and back away from Clinton, and everyone else needs to just fall in line,” Mrs. Hariss-Lacewell said, before yesterday”s primary.

She said the even split in the Congressional Black Caucus — 15 members for Mr. Obama and 15 members for Mrs. Clinton — now seems embarrassing.

“What the Congressional Black Caucus is doing is making itself irrelevant. … These globally elected House of Representative members who are there solely on black support and have managed to maintain their power through their racial constituency are now in a totally different place than Barack,” she said.

“The sad thing is they would have lost nothing” had they backed Mr. Obama early, she said, adding that “their position as the gatekeepers for black voters would still have been intact, and they would have been on the right side of history and lost nothing.”

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