IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama giving Clinton a race in her backyard

Obama poses a serious threat to Clinton's claim to New York's rich delegate lode, allies of both candidates say.
/ Source: The New York Times

With Senator Barack Obama vowing to challenge Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on her home turf, the Democratic presidential primary in New York on Feb. 5 is shaping up as the state’s most competitive since 1992, when Bill Clinton took up a rival’s mantra of change to all but cinch the nomination.

Mrs. Clinton was re-elected a little more than a year ago by better than two to one. Before the Iowa caucuses, she had so dominated opinion polls and endorsements by elected officials and powerful unions that many considered her home state impregnable to political interlopers.

But if Mr. Obama wins the South Carolina primary in two weeks, he could develop enough grass-roots support among young people, liberals and black voters in New York to pose a serious threat to her claim to the state’s rich delegate lode, allies of both candidates say.

“The expectation is that Hillary should win in New York,” said Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV of Harlem, an Obama supporter. “As you know, expectations don’t always translate into votes, and so we’re going to fight in New York.”

While Mrs. Clinton’s supporters say they are certain she will win the state and, with it, the bulk of its 281 delegates, they acknowledge that to keep Mr. Obama from running even a close second, she may have to invest more precious time and money here. Twenty-one other states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, also hold primaries on Feb. 5.

“Clearly they’re going to make a humongous effort to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said State Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem, an Obama supporter.

'Emotion and racial pride'
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Blake Zeff, the Clinton campaign’s communications director in New York. Representative Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, one of Mrs. Clinton’s earliest supporters, predicted that she would do “extremely well — after all, she’s our ‘favorite daughter.’ She’s better known and she’s earned the right to our support.”

But, Mr. Rangel acknowledged, “Obama’s electric campaign will stimulate a big turnout.”

“Even though there’s no question in my mind that Hillary can do a better job, we’re dealing with a lot of emotion and racial pride, and he’s proven himself to be a credible candidate already,” Mr. Rangel said.

Measured by volunteers, phone banks, offices and other tangible signs statewide, the Clinton campaign appears better organized. She has the support of many members of Congress and the Legislature, as well as the backing of unions that are adept at turning out voters, including those representing teachers, building service workers and municipal employees.

Mr. Obama has been endorsed by a number of black elected officials in Harlem, southeast Queens and central Brooklyn, all bastions of Democratic voters. And in a particularly revealing gauge of his organizational strength, Mr. Obama is the only Democrat other than Mrs. Clinton to have full delegate slates in each of the state’s 29 Congressional districts, suggesting he may be competitive in areas outside New York City.

In the 2004 primary, nearly half the Democrats who voted were in New York City. Manhattan alone accounted for nearly one in five.

Even before his victory in Iowa, Mr. Obama had an impressive fund-raising record in New York, receiving significant support from Wall Street, the entertainment industry and lawyers. Through Sept. 30, he reported raising more from New York donors than any other Democrat except Mrs. Clinton and was not far behind former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Mrs. Clinton reported raising more than $18 million in all from New Yorkers, compared to Mr. Obama’s nearly $8 million, but a large chunk of Mrs. Clinton’s fund-raising is reserved for the general election. New York contributors who donated for the primaries gave $13 million to Mrs. Clinton through Sept. 30 and $7 million to Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama’s victory in Iowa and his second-place finish in New Hampshire have put a number of black leaders in the awkward position of opposing a black candidate for president.

Many black elected officials in New York have already endorsed Mrs. Clinton, but they may find that their followers, who constitute as much as 25 percent of New York’s primary electorate, are flocking to Mr. Obama if he wins South Carolina, political analysts said.

A few prominent black leaders remain on the fence. Among those leaders is the Rev. Al Sharpton. On Friday, in one sign of how vigorously he is being courted, Bill Clinton called into Mr. Sharpton’s nationally syndicated radio talk show to explain his use of the phrase “fairy tale” in a critique of the Obama campaign this week. The description angered many blacks, but Mr. Clinton said he was referring only to Mr. Obama’s position on Iraq, not his candidacy.

Neither campaign has made firm decisions yet about television advertising and public appearances in the state, which has 5.3 million enrolled Democrats.

Their ranks could be swollen by last-minute registration efforts. Unregistered New Yorkers had until Friday to enroll in order to be eligible to vote Feb. 5.

The New York City Board of Elections said more than 13,000 forms had been filed in the last week alone. In New Hampshire, Mr. Obama fared better among first-time primary voters.

Clinton camp energized
On primary day, 232 of New York’s 281 convention delegates will be in play, 151 of them elected by Congressional district and allotted in proportion to the candidate’s total. Some delegate slots are reserved for public officials and party leaders, and others are assigned by party officials. Representative Anthony D. Weiner, a Clinton supporter who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, said the campaign dynamics have energized the Clinton camp, too.

“It’s now clear that her home state is going to play an important role in making her president,” he said. “People are more excited about that than concerned.”

He said he had not discerned any shift to Mr. Obama among Clinton supporters.

At least one has shifted the other way. Neil Barsky, a Manhattan hedge-fund manager who raised money last year for Mr. Obama, said he now favored Mrs. Clinton. “I believe Hillary, while potentially less of a transformational candidate, would make an excellent president and is our best chance of winning,” he said.

New York’s presidential primaries have usually been held too late to make much difference, although in June 1972 George S. McGovern’s near sweep in New York virtually sealed his nomination.

Two other New York primaries were pivotal, though.

In April 1988, Michael S. Dukakis won a bruising primary campaign in New York over Al Gore and Jesse Jackson, who polled an impressive 37 percent.

In April 1992, New York Democrats squelched the presidential aspirations of Paul E. Tsongas and Edmund G. Brown Jr., who had run as an anti-establishment candidate, and all but virtually sealed Bill Clinton’s presidential nomination.

In his victory speech, Mr. Clinton declared, “Tonight, every person who voted in the Democratic primary voted for change.”

Reporting was contributed by Diane Cardwell, Patrick Healy, Aron Pilhofer and Raymond Hernandez.