Obama – Clinton : Bridging the racial divide

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About three-quarters of the 9,000 people who turned up to see Barack Obama at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday evening were black. Yet, the section of seating directly behind where he spoke was filled overwhelmingly by whites.

By Andrew Ward in Charlotte, North Carolina

The Obama campaign would not say how seats were allocated but it appeared as though a conscious decision had been made to ensure that television pictures showed the senator against a backdrop of white faces.

The apparent attempt at image control came amid mounting concern within the Obama camp about his declining popularity among white voters after weeks of racially charged debate on his ties to Jeremiah Wright, his former pastor.

A national poll released at the weekend showed that 53 per cent of whites with no college education viewed Mr Obama unfavourably, up a dozen percentage points from November. It was this group that propelled Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, to victory in Pennsylvania last month and they could again prove decisive in tomorrow’s primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.

At the Charlotte event, Mr Obama accused opponents of focusing on his character and background to undermine his cross-racial appeal. “They’ve been saying, ‘Well, look at those crazy things his former pastor said or he’s not wearing a flag pin or he’s got a funny name, sounds like he’s Muslim’,” he said. “Those are strategies to divide us.”

While enthusiasm for Mr Obama may be waning in some quarters, his support from African-Americans is stronger than ever. In Charlotte, which has the largest concentration of black voters in North Carolina, people queued for hours to attend his event and greeted him with a deafening roar when he appeared.

Regina Mullings, a 38-year-old bank worker, said she had never seen such political engagement within the black community. “Even three- and four-year-old kids in my neighbourhood know who Obama is,” she said. Bernice Williams, aged 70, attended the rally with her 17-year-old grandson, who can vote for the first time in November. “I never thought there would be a chance of seeing a black president in my lifetime,” she said.

But the excitement was tinged with anger and concern about the controversy surrounding Mr Obama’s former pastor. Every black voter questioned by the Financial Times complained that the issue was being blown out of proportion to derail the campaign. “They can’t find any dirt on him so they’ve had to dig up someone else’s words to attack him,” said Melvin Howze, a 42-year-old mechanic.

Kimberlee Boulding, a 39- year-old customer service representative and Obama volunteer, said she had made 200 phone calls and knocked on 67 doors canvassing for the senator. “Only one person has asked about Reverend Wright,” she says. “The media is obsessing about him but voters are more interested in issues.”

Mr Obama is relying on a big turnout by African-Americans in North Carolina, where nearly 40 per cent of registered Democrats are black. There is also a large number of college-educated whites – another Obama support base – in the university cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. But his opinion poll lead has narrowed to single digits as the Wright controversy has flared. One recent survey showed Mrs Clinton leading among white voters by 18 percentage points.

In Charlotte, Mr Obama acknowledged the campaign had soured and vowed to return to the unifying message he set out when announcing his run for president last year. “Sometimes we’ve lost the sense of what this campaign is about,” he said. “When you’ve been whacked over the head as many times as I have, there is a temptation to hit back. But when you start doing that, you lose focus.”

The Financial Times

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