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For Obama, questions over race, electability

Is the Democratic Party hesitating about race as it moves to the brink of nominating an African-American to be president?
Image: Barack Obama
Democratic presidential hopeful Brack Obama reads the paper on his campaign plane Wednesday. The makeup of voters who have proved reluctant to embrace  Obama has Democrats wondering, if not worrying, about what role race may be playing. Jae C. Hong / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

It is the question that has hung over Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and it loomed large on Tuesday night after his loss to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in Pennsylvania: Why has he been unable to win over enough working-class and white voters to wrap up the Democratic nomination?

Lurking behind that question is another: Is the Democratic Party hesitating about race as it moves to the brink of nominating an African-American to be president?

Mr. Obama remains ahead of Mrs. Clinton in delegates, in the popular vote and in national polls, and Mrs. Clinton certainly has her own problems trying to herd Democrats into her corner.

But just when it seemed that the Democratic Party was close to anointing Mr. Obama as its nominee, he lost yet again in a big general election state, dragged down by his weakness among blue-collar voters, older voters and white voters. The composition of Mrs. Clinton’s support — or, looked at another way, the makeup of voters who have proved reluctant to embrace Mr. Obama — has Democrats wondering, if not worrying, about what role race may be playing.

“I’m sure there is some of that,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior political adviser, as he considered how race was playing among voters in late primary states. Mr. Axelrod said Mrs. Clinton’s biggest advantage had been among older voters, “and I think there is a general inclination on the part of the older voters to vote for what is more familiar.” He added: “Here’s a guy named Barack Obama, an African-American guy, relatively new. That’s a lot of change.”

Racial factors difficult to measure
While arguably critical to determining the viability of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, the role of race is difficult to disentangle from the other strands of the political debate surrounding him, encompassing topics like values, elitism, ideology and experience. Although some polling evidence hints at the depth of racial attitudes in this country and the obstacles Mr. Obama faces winning white voters, it has historically proved challenging to measure how racial attitudes factor into voter decisions. (Respondents do not tend to announce to pollsters that they will not vote for a candidate because he or she is black.)

It is also hard to discount that Mr. Obama has arrived at this place in his candidacy after winning big victories in very white states. The crowds at his rallies are as white as any at a Clinton rally, and many analysts in both parties believe that racial attitudes in this country are changing at a breakneck pace, particularly among younger voters, making it risky to impose models from even four years ago on this unusual election.

Complicating things even further are the high-profile episodes that have rattled his campaign.

His remark at a private fundraiser in San Francisco about bitter blue-collar workers “clinging” to guns and religion was the kind of assertion that would be damaging to a candidate of any race. Inflammatory statements by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who is black, have been seized on by Republicans to present Mr. Obama as unpatriotic. An advertisement released by Republicans in North Carolina on Wednesday included that portrayal.

Obama being defined as an outsider
The statement by Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, that “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country,” has been invoked by Republicans in an effort to portray Mr. Obama as culturally unlike the people he is asking to vote for him, a historically potent line of attack.

“Race is intertwined with a broader notion that he is not one of us,” said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, which did an extensive examination of voter attitudes, particularly among Democrats who have an unfavorable view of Mr. Obama. “They react negatively to people who are seen as different.”

Geoff Garin, a senior strategist for Mrs. Clinton, said that while race may have had a role in Mr. Obama’s problems in Pennsylvania, his biggest problem was that these events underlined the image of him being out of touch.

“Voters came into the campaign with pretty big question marks about whether Obama gets them,” Mr. Garin said. “And those comments reinforced doubts that people had.”

Risks for both Democratic candidates
At the same time, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the likely Republican nominee, has sought to portray Mr. Obama as ideologically out of step with much of the country, focusing on his views on tax cuts, health care and the war in Iraq.

“The big question about Barack Obama from the very beginning has been, Is he safe?” said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster not affiliated with any campaign. “Safe in terms of both the cultural values that he has, and about whether he is strong enough to be commander in chief.”

For Mr. Obama, race presents two potential problems: Voters opposing him simply because he is black, and Democrats who will not support him because they do not think a black man can win a general election.

The results in Pennsylvania suggest that problems exist. A poll of Democratic voters conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the television networks and The Associated Press found that Mrs. Clinton drew 63 percent of the white vote while Mr. Obama drew 90 percent of the black vote, mirroring a pattern in many other states. More strikingly, the poll found that 18 percent of Democrats said that race mattered to them in this contest — and just 63 percent of those voters said they would support Mr. Obama in a general election.

There is also a flip side to the increasing racial polarization in Democratic voting patterns: Should Mrs. Clinton win the nomination, some Democrats said, there is a risk that she would be unable to mobilize African-American voters to support her if she won in a way that was viewed as unfair by black voters. That would be a particular risk given the backlash to some of the things former President Bill Clinton has said about Mr. Obama.

More a question of new vs. familiar?
The exit poll found that 69 percent of white Democrats would vote for Mr. Obama in a general election campaign over Mr. McCain; 73 percent of black Democrats said they would vote for Mrs. Clinton over Mr. McCain.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama played down the racial aspects of the coalition Mrs. Clinton used to defeat him in Pennsylvania.

“Our problem has less to do with white working-class voters,” Mr. Obama told reporters Wednesday in Indiana. “In fact the problem is that — to the extent that there is a problem — is that older voters are very loyal to Senator Clinton.”

But the real test may come in the general election, should he win the Democratic nomination. Pennsylvania and Ohio will be two critical states this fall, and it will be difficult for any Democrat to win those states without the support from the Democrats that Mr. Obama is struggling to bring onto his bandwagon.

Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.

This article, For Democrats, Questions Over Race and Electability, originally appeared in The New York Times.