The South Carolina and Missouri primaries next week will be the first test for the Democratic presidential candidates seeking inroads into the black vote.
Political strategist Morris Reid said the importance of these primaries have increased and candidates who choose to skip certain heavily black states early in the primary season are taking a big gamble.
“South Carolina is the Iowa for the black community, and I don’t believe Senator Kerry is making the right decision,” Mr. Reid said. Mr. Kerry pulled out of South Carolina turning his attention to the New Hampshire and Missouri contests.
Black voters have yet to latch on to a single Democratic candidate, which leaves the eight Feb. 3 primaries even more crucial for those seeking to make it to the next round of primaries.
Census figures show that 29.5 percent of South Carolinians are black. Exit polls from the 2000 election show that 53 percent of South Carolina voters who voted for Democratic nominee Al Gore were black.
Donna Brazile, director of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute, agreed. She said the outcome of the Iowa caucuses has shifted some of the attention to South Carolina, but added that the Southern state’s primary could be equally unpredictable.
“I don’t think South Carolina voters will make up their mind until after New Hampshire; maybe they will certify the Iowa and New Hampshire votes or they may seek to make their own choice,” she said.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina who finished a surprising second in Iowa has been the early favorite in South Carolina representing the state’s northern cousin. But the field is muddled with numerous candidates having close relationships in the state and endorsements are scattered.
Mr. Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, has been snubbed by noteworthy colleagues.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, endorsed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who has since dropped out of the race, and isn’t expected to stick his neck out for anyone else. On Thursday, Mr. Kerry was endorsed by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a fixture in South Carolina Democratic politics.
Richard A. Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said Mr. Kerry’s disengagement from the primary could “insult” blacks and conservative white Democrats. He added that Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio most likely “won’t get a lot of votes” also for lack of appearance, and that’s if those two campaigns survive the New Hampshire primary.
A South Carolina poll released Monday by the American Research Group shows Mr. Edwards leading with 21 percent followed by Mr. Kerry with 17 percent. The survey of 600 likely Democratic primary voters was conducted Jan. 23 and 24 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. The Rev. Al Sharpton placed third in the poll with 15 percent and Wesley Clark was fourth with 14 percent. Mr. Dean sank to 9 percent.
“Kerry was very engaged here, he made his announcement here and then in October he pulled the plug. He doesn’t have a field organization here,” Mr. Harpootlian said.
He said Mr. Clark, a retired general who has family in the state, has excellent potential and added that Mr. Kerry is making a huge mistake by not campaigning in the state. Mr. Sharpton has spent nearly all of his time in the state.
As for Missouri, the primary was expected to go to its favorite son, Mr. Gephardt, who has represented the 3rd District there since first elected to Congress in 1976. But Mr. Gephardt dropped out of the White House race after a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses. This catapulted the Missouri race to a must-win for any candidate looking to court black voters.
“Missouri is wide open, and coming out of New Hampshire it is a battleground state. I am sure Dick Gephardt left a lot of phones untapped for support, so after New Hampshire you will see the candidates move their people there,” Ms. Brazile said.
Eighty-four percent of registered black voters in Missouri chose Mr. Gore in 2000; 20 percent of the Missouri electorate is black. But the state is important because it is the first primary with major cities with heavily black populations.
Fringe candidates are exploring how to reach black voters. Mr. Reid said that Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, and Mr. Clark, a former NATO commander, have yet to figure out how their military records will play with blacks.
“Senator Kerry is a military man who has fought shoulder to shoulder with blacks in Vietnam,” Mr. Reid said. Mr. Kerry, he added, participated in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War movement in the early 1970s, a position championed by Martin Luther King before his assassination in 1968.
Likewise, Mr. Clark has not tapped the small business perspective of his military background, Mr. Reid said. The small-business community, which includes a vast majority of black-owned businesses, relies heavily on the military for subcontracts and Mr. Clark’s primary employment since leaving the military was helping such companies win contracts with the Defense Department, he added.
But with the endorsement of Mr. Hollings and with the backing of the political giant from Massachusetts, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Mr. Reid said Mr. Kerry could still improve his standings in the state in the coming week.
“The Kennedy family has 100 percent credibility with blacks and it is has had the most significant impact on the African-American community of any white family in politics,” he said.