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Obama, Clinton in a tight battle for black vote

DETROIT -- Talk to the rapper Master P and you'd think there weren't eight Democrats running for president, but just two: Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

For Master P, whose given name is Percy Miller, it's a choice purely between the wife of the man once called America's "first black president" and the half-Kenyan, half-Kansan freshman lawmaker from Chicago who's inspiring African-American voters with his strong candidacy.

"Those are two great candidates for our community and our people," said Miller, one of more than 3,000 people who gathered here yesterday for a presidential candidates' forum sponsored by the NAACP. "I like what they talk about, I like what they stand for."

In the competition for black primary voters among Democratic presidential contenders, Miller's sentiments reflect what the polls and interviews with African-Americans suggest: that Obama and Clinton are locked in a fierce battle for black support, which could prove more pivotal than ever given next year's front-loaded primary calendar.

Black voters say they like Clinton for her work on issues important to minorities, such as universal healthcare, and out of a sense of loyalty to President Clinton. But they say they are also moved by Obama's uplifting message, his life experience, and the prospect of seeing the first African-American president in the White House.

"I've listened to her over the years; he caught me with his first speech," said Janet Hightower, a 62-year-old retired state liquor store manager from Seattle who was at yesterday's forum. "It is hard."

Polls underline the divided loyalties. In a Gallup survey last month, 43 percent of black Democrats said they preferred Clinton, while 42 percent said they liked Obama. The next-highest vote-getter was John Edwards, former North Carolina senator, at 6 percent.

"It's pretty clear that the black vote is being split up, or at least what's been decided, between Obama and Clinton," said David Bositis, a specialist on politics and African-American voters at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The competition between Obama and Clinton for black votes comes in a year in which several high-profile events have drawn attention to racial politics and their potential impact on the Democratic primary race.

In March, Obama and Clinton traveled to Selma, Ala., to commemorate the 1965 voting rights protest in which marchers were attacked by police, a watershed event of the Civil Rights Movement. Both used their appearances to pay homage to civil rights pioneers, though Obama was forced to acknowledge afterward that he overreached when he said that his parents had gotten together because of the march, when in fact he was already born .

Later this spring, the candidates were on the hot seat when radio host Don Imus made racially charged comments about a women's college basketball team. Though Clinton was also slow to respond, Obama was criticized by some African-Americans for not immediately condemning Imus's remarks.

Yesterday's forum in Detroit, held as part of the NAACP's annual convention, was the second such event of the primary season devoted to minority issues -- the Democrats debated last month at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington.

After the Howard event, some commentators said Obama missed an opportunity to steal the show in front of a sympathetic crowd. But Clinton drew some of the biggest applause that night, particularly for asserting that the country would be more worried about HIV/AIDS were it disproportionately affecting whites instead of blacks.

But Obama delivered a more forceful performance yesterday, each of his answers bringing crescendoing cheers from the crowd of more than 3,000. He walked on stage to deafening applause, which resumed after he used his opening statement to paint himself as a proud product of the civil rights struggles and the work done by the NAACP.

"If these causes of my life and your lives can be projected across this country, I am absolutely convinced we won't just win the election, we're going to transform the country," he said.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, whose turn was next, said wryly, "I want to thank the NAACP for allowing me to follow Barack Obama here."

The candidates then discussed school integration, gun violence, voting rights, job outsourcing, and healthcare. Each candidate tried to claim ownership of the civil rights mantle.

Clinton cited Ralph Ellison's novel "Invisible Man" and said she wanted to be part of the "long march" toward true racial equality, advocating expanded parental responsibility in education and rebuilding the American manufacturing base. Edwards, who based his campaign on an antipoverty platform, pushed his plan for universal healthcare and called for reallocating the money being spent in Iraq for domestic concerns.

"We need a movement, brothers and sisters," Edwards said.

Even with Obama's soaring rhetoric on race, he was careful yesterday to couch his policy prescriptions in class terms, too, a reflection, perhaps, of the delicate line he is trying to walk: appealing to black voters without alienating white ones, and appealing to white voters without alienating black ones. That tension has been evident over the past six months as some prominent voices in the black community have raised questions about whether Obama is genuinely one of them.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a past presidential candidate , has asked whether Obama is committed to the bold steps he believes are necessary to advance civil rights. And Princeton scholar Cornel West, according to a Newsweek report this week, told a black crowd near Atlanta earlier this year that Obama was holding the black community "at arm's length" so he could appeal to white voters. (West, after meeting with Obama, later endorsed him.)

Ron Walters, a former top campaign aide to the Rev. Jesse Jackson who is now a University of Maryland professor, said the criticism that there's a "distance" between Obama -- who was born in Hawaii, grew up in Indonesia, and attended Ivy League schools -- and the traditional black experience will probably endure.

"I think it's going to be very difficult [for him] to get, for example, the kind of black support Jesse Jackson had in 1984, 1988," Walters said.

But that's also a function of the increased competition for the black vote this year, Walters said.

"Normally you have one person who sort of ends up with most of it," he said. "Now you have four, five people competing for it, claiming a right to it." Walters said he was referring also to Edwards and Dodd.

Because African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, their choice of candidate carries much more significance in the primary race than in the general election. Indeed, although all the Republican candidates were invited to yesterday's presidential forum, one -- US Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado -- accepted.

And with South Carolina, Florida, and Michigan -- states boasting sizable African-American populations -- likely to hold some of the earliest primaries, black voters could shape the outcome in 2008 more than ever.

That's why political analysts, pollsters, and fellow Democrats predict a concerted effort, in particular by Clinton and Obama, to generate as much support in black communities as they can.

"Hillary is sort of a political institution and Barack is a new face on the scene," said Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who was in Detroit for the convention. "They're both very dynamic, they're both very energetic, and from my standpoint either one of them would make a great president."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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