San Diego Union Tribune

January 31, 2004

Candidates battle for support of black voters


COLUMBIA, S.C. When Sen. John Edwards came to South Carolina after the New Hampshire primary, he made his first campaign appearance in tiny Orangeburg, a town about 44 miles south of Columbia, the state's largest city.

Although Orangeburg has only 12,765 residents, it is home to two historically black colleges and is in the heart of a county that is 61 percent African-American.

Edwards' decision underscored the high-stakes nature of the battle to win over black voters, who analysts say might cast up to half the ballots in South Carolina's Democratic primary election Tuesday.

As the race for the party's presidential nomination moves beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, which are predominantly white, into states with sizable minority populations such as South Carolina and Missouri, the tone of the race is changing as the candidates make appeals to a more diverse pool of voters.

That was evident yesterday when retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark criticized front-runner Sen. John Kerry for remarks he made 12 years ago that were widely interpreted as expressing reservations about affirmative action.

"Affirmative action is a very important program to me," Clark said after attending a forum here on issues affecting low-income voters. "We lived it in the U.S. armed forces. We made it work. I've seen its virtue."

Kerry, of Massachusetts, was asked about his past comments during a debate in Greenville the night before. He said he was referring to critics' concerns about hiring preferences for minorities.

"I've always supported" affirmative action, he said. "I've implemented it. And I will as president of the United States."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who had virtually no impact on the Iowa and New Hampshire races, expects to be a factor Tuesday. The lone African-American candidate in the race, Sharpton has said he intends to win Democratic National Convention delegates in South Carolina, Missouri and Delaware. He has spent most of his time campaigning in South Carolina but paid a visit to St. Louis earlier this week.

Political observers here say black voters are still up for grabs.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's most influential African-American politician, estimated that as many as 30 percent of black voters here remain undecided.

Clyburn, who endorsed Kerry on Thursday, added, "I'm going to try to talk to that 26 to 30 percent and try to get them to see it my way."

Edwards, of North Carolina, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have touted endorsements from prominent black politicians, including Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, who endorsed Edwards, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., who has campaigned for Dean in South Carolina and other states.

Black churches are particularly important campaign stops and potential organizing centers for the candidates.

Kerry recently met with the St. Louis-area Clergy Coalition, which represents mainly African-American congregations. The Rev. Earl Nance, former president of the group, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the coalition doesn't endorse candidates but that he had personally endorsed Kerry and that a "few others have as well."

Sharpton has campaigned extensively in black churches throughout South Carolina and got a rousing reception at yesterday's forum on poverty issues. But political experts are split on whether he will attract a substantial number of votes Tuesday.

"I think if he has a good day, Sharpton will get 20 percent, on a great day, 25 percent" of the black vote in South Carolina, said David Bositis, senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that focuses on minority issues.

Ike Williams, who is on leave as Clyburn's chief of staff and is, ironically, working for Edwards, said Sharpton "plays well" on the campaign trail, but "I think people are beyond sending a message."

Several African-American voters expressed as much in interviews.

"Sharpton is a great guy. He's bringing out issues that need to be talked about," said Anthony Reynolds, 37, a credit union manager from Orangeburg. "But I hope Edwards wins. I like his vision of changing America and having equality in America."

A tracking poll by Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby released yesterday showed Sharpton with 9 percent among black voters in South Carolina. Kerry had the strongest showing, with 26 percent support, followed by Edwards with 16 percent. Overall, Edwards led with 25 percent support, Kerry came in second with 24 percent, Dean had 9 percent and Clark got 8 percent. Sharpton and Lieberman had 5 percent each and Kucinich had less than 1 percent.

Ken Warren, a pollster and political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, predicted Sharpton "won't be a factor" in Missouri because the black vote there, though significant, is proportionally smaller than in South Carolina.

The Zogby tracking poll showed Sharpton drawing 2 percent support in Missouri. Kerry was leading with 45 percent, followed by Edwards with 11 percent. No breakdown by ethnicity was available.

Sharpton said he is determined to pick up enough delegates to have some influence at the Democratic convention this summer in Boston.

"The best thing that could happen is that I can win the presidency," he said earlier this week in St. Louis. "The worst thing that could happen is that we will get delegates where they can't ignore us, can't marginalize us and act like we're not there."

Black voters and political leaders say the issues that will sway them to vote for a particular candidate are largely the same as those that concern white voters, particularly jobs, education and health care.

"I don't think there's any difference between black people and white people on what the major issues are," Clyburn said. "But there are some things that will resonate well with black people that may not be all that important to white people the affirmative action issue, the whole issue of accessibility to educational opportunities and economic opportunities."

Edwards plays up his South Carolina roots he was born in the state and his status as one of only two Southerners in the race. Clark is from Arkansas.

"From the time I was very young, I've seen, as you have, the ugly faces of segregation and discrimination young African-American kids sent upstairs in movie theaters, 'White Only' signs on restaurants and luncheon counters," Edwards told a crowd earlier this week at South Carolina State University, one of the historically black colleges in Orangeburg.

"I feel an enormous personal responsibility when it comes to issues of race and equality and civil rights," he said.

Some observers believe such appeals could make a difference Tuesday because there is little that separates the candidates on many major issues.

"For him to come to South Carolina State sends a strong signal," said John Rickenbacker, chairman of the Orangeburg County Council.