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Southern Blacks are split on Clinton vs. Obama

Across the South, a fierce competition is afoot between Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for  black voters, who are expected to constitute 20 percent to 50 percent of voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26 and in the four Southern states with primaries on Feb. 5 .
Image: Barack Obama in Charleston, South Carolina
Spectators react as Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., works the crowd during a rally on the College of Charleston campus in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 10.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

The People’s Voice African-American Weekly News in tiny Roanoke, Ala., has not endorsed a candidate in the state’s Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 5 — much to the frustration of its publisher, Charlotte A. Clark-Frieson, a Barack Obama supporter.

“I’m trying to get ready to endorse him, but my board is so split,” Ms. Clark-Frieson said.

While letters to the paper are almost unanimously in favor of Mr. Obama, she said, the older of the state’s two black political organizations, the Alabama Democratic Conference, endorsed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in October.

So great is the tension over the Democratic contest, Ms. Clark-Frieson said, that many of her newspaper’s board members have refused to betray their preference even in private.

Across the South, a fierce competition is afoot for black voters, who are expected to constitute 20 percent to 50 percent of voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26 and in the four Southern states with primaries on Feb. 5: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. In many counties, registration has spiked since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and election officials say interest is at its highest point in several election cycles.

While the official ground game is just beginning, chatter about the two candidates — both of whom have substantial claims to African-American support — is constant on black radio shows and e-mail lists and at barbershops. Officials and ministers are coming forward with last-minute endorsements, and campaigns are buttering up the activity directors at centers for the elderly. Both campaigns have opened or will open offices this week — the Clinton camp in Nashville, the Obama camp in Little Rock, Ark., in Memphis and two each in Alabama and Georgia.

Not a monolithic bloc
For several weeks, race has dominated the Democratic contest, prompting a flurry of angry words between the Obama and Clinton camps. That fight appears to have died down, but Southern black voters are still in knots over a contest that pits a woman they know well against a viable black candidate. If any election can prove that Southern blacks are not a monolithic voting bloc, it is this one.

The competition pits old loyalties against new passions, and traditional kingmakers — many of whom backed Mrs. Clinton months ago — against Mr. Obama’s grass-roots energy. And as the Clinton camp doggedly pursues women, in some cases it is splitting families, like Representative Sanford D. Bishop Jr., co-chairman of the Obama campaign in Georgia, and his wife, Vivian Creighton Bishop, a public official in Columbus, Ga., and a Clinton supporter.

In Atlanta, the race has also split longtime allies in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery has supported Mr. Obama, for instance, while Representative John Lewis has defended Mrs. Clinton against accusations that she and her husband denigrated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in an attack on Mr. Obama.

Another prominent Clinton supporter from the civil rights era, Andrew Young, also defended Mrs. Clinton. “Hillary Clinton, first of all, has Bill behind her,” Mr. Young said on a recent Webcast devoted to African-American issues. “And Bill is every bit as black as Barack.”

But a younger generation appears to be embracing Mr. Obama. Raphael G. Warnock, the 38-year-old senior pastor of Dr. King’s home church, Ebenezer Baptist here, gave Mr. Obama the honor of appearing there this coming Sunday, the day before the national King holiday.

Roanoke has long been a stronghold of the Alabama Democratic Conference, which endorsed Mrs. Clinton in part because its members believed that a black man could not be elected. But statewide, the group’s support of Mrs. Clinton may be tested by the Obama campaign’s insurgency.

“This is going to be another one of these watershed events in the black community,” said Hank Sanders, a state senator and former president of the Alabama New South Coalition, a group that has endorsed Mr. Obama.

Gerald W. Johnson, the pollster for the Alabama Education Association, a powerful teachers’ union that has endorsed Mrs. Clinton, said Mr. Obama’s victory in Iowa had demolished Mrs. Clinton’s substantial lead among Democrats in the state. Mr. Johnson predicted that black voters would make up half of the Democratic primary voters, up from the usual 40 percent.

But Ms. Clark-Frieson said she feared that the Obama momentum might not reach Roanoke.

“A.D.C. is going to spend a lot of money,” she said, “and they’re going to put out a ballot, and voters are going to follow that ballot to the letter because they’ve been doing that for 30 years. Those that might would consider voting for Barack won’t commit publicly because they don’t want to be seen as going against the A.D.C.”

That hesitancy cuts both ways. In Atlanta, Mark Johnson, a 35-year-old seminary student, said he was the first to put a political sign up in his predominantly black neighborhood. It was a Clinton sign. “My son said, ‘Dad, what if they throw rocks at the window?’ ” Mr. Johnson said.

Throughout the South, the considerations are complex, particularly when a black official represents a district of differing complexions and outlooks. Mr. Bishop, a black Democrat whose rural southwest Georgia district is mostly white and twice gave President Bush its vote, said he had carefully considered the comfort level of his conservative constituents before he endorsed Mr. Obama. “Hillary is not thought well of,” he said.

Ms. Bishop, who as clerk of court is the first African-American to hold citywide office in Columbus, agreed, saying she had delayed drawing attention to her endorsement of Mrs. Clinton to avoid angering her constituents. Ms. Bishop said she was more concerned about whites who disliked Mrs. Clinton than about blacks who might be disappointed that she had not supported a black candidate.

The Clinton campaign hopes its candidate will appeal as strongly to black women as she has to white women in earlier primaries. In Atlanta, Lucy Murphy, an active Democrat who works for a military contractor, said she was “going with gender all the way.” Ms. Murphy, 55 and black, said: “The working women will rise up. Black men believe if men take a stand, black women will follow. That’s why we are fortunate to be able to go in the voting booth without them.”

Female support not uniform
But female support for Mrs. Clinton is not uniform. Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta, who had said she would remain neutral, made a surprise endorsement for Mr. Obama after hearing his victory speech in Iowa.

Some black women have complained that there are shades of chauvinism in the tide of support for Mr. Obama. But on a black radio talk show in Montgomery, Ala., last week, several men called to repudiate the conservative host, Kevin Elkins, who had said, “I don’t understand how any man that’s a man can want to hide behind the skirt of a woman for leadership.”

But those same callers did not say they would vote for Mrs. Clinton. One suggested that the recent furor over race in the campaign had eroded blacks’ affection for Bill Clinton. “With him trying to force-feed us Hillary, I think it’s jeopardizing his legacy,” the caller said.

Some of the traditional go-to organizations for Democratic votes in the South have crumbled since the last time a Clinton was on the ballot. In Memphis, the stronghold for black Democratic voters in Tennessee, the once-powerful Ford family, longtime Clinton supporters, has been all but dismantled by indictments, lost elections, illness and age. Mr. Obama opened an office there on Thursday, and though Mrs. Clinton did win the endorsement of the longtime mayor, Willie W. Herenton, who is black, she has no plans to follow suit.

“The only thing I can assume is that they figure that they can come into Memphis at the last minute and sweep up the black vote,” said D’Army Bailey, a state circuit court judge and black Democrat who supported Bill Clinton. “The field’s wide open for Obama to come in.”

Memphis did not see a spike in voter registrations after the Iowa caucuses — unlike, say, DeKalb County, a central Atlanta county that is 55 percent black. In the two days between the Iowa voting and the deadline to register, DeKalb County accepted more than 6,000 applications, as opposed to 545 in the two days before the deadline in 2004.

The Obama campaign is trying to make inroads even in Arkansas, but Clintonian roots run deep there and the task will be difficult.

“Younger folks may not have the allegiance that older blacks in Arkansas have to the Clintons,” said Tracy Steele, a state senator, “but we know that older people vote, and getting younger people to go to the polls is difficult.”

Nonetheless, Pat O’Brien, the Pulaski County clerk and an Obama supporter in Little Rock, said that with a campaign office newly opened, legions of Obama volunteers would finally have an outlet.

“My sense is that we’re going to have more volunteers and supporters than we can handle,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I think we’re going to be overwhelmed.”

Reporting was contributed by Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Ark.; John Branston in Memphis; Clint Claybrook in Dadeville, Ala.; Coke Ellington in Montgomery, Ala.; and Brenda Goodman in Atlanta.

Reporting was contributed by Steve Barnes in Little Rock, Ark.; John Branston in Memphis; Clint Claybrook in Dadeville, Ala.; Coke Ellington in Montgomery, Ala.; and Brenda Goodman in Atlanta.