A top campaign strategist to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has identified blacks as the Democratic presidential candidate's "base," suggesting that Obama can mobilize unregistered black voters to the polls like no other Democrat in the 2008 race.
"I think he has a strong base in the African-American community that in some states is going to be very, very helpful," David Axelrod, Obama's senior campaign strategist, told journalist Linda Douglass in the latest issue of the National Journal magazine.
"No one brings the kind of background and history that he does," he told Douglass. "No one brings, I think the sense of identification with people who are struggling to be heard."
The comments may be the campaign's strongest language to date about the 2008 race's only black candidate's ability to attract black voters in early primary voting states like South Carolina, where about half of Democratic primary voters are black.
"I think [Obama] will put states in play that no other [Democrat] can put in play," said Axelrod. "There is no doubt that the energy and enthusiasm in the African-American community will give us a chance in some Southern states where there is a high number of African-American voters, and some who are not necessarily registered to vote."
The campaign of Obama's biggest '08 rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. disagrees that blacks will vote en masse for Obama.
"African-American women are going to be her strongest base," said Traci Otey Blunt, Clinton's director of black outreach. "It's the African-American mom that is going to see her record. Sen. Clinton has 35 years of experience advocating civil rights issues, speaking for children in the Senate and expanding opportunities for American-owned businesses."
The Clinton campaign maintains she has had a "spurt of support" among black voters. They point to an "African American Men for Hillary" luncheon in Washington, D.C., July 26 that drew 200 black men to hear Clinton speak.
During the luncheon the campaign unveiled a video endorsement by influential Grammy-award winning music producer and prominent activist Quincy Jones.
Clinton has also been endorsed by famed author and poet Maya Angelou. Meanwhile, Obama has won the endorsement of philanthropist and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
However, many high-profile black leaders have yet to endorse either of the leading candidates, including South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Cyburn, who is widely regarded as one of the most influential black politicians in the state, civil rights activist Georgia Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Some Democratic strategists suggest Clinton may have an edge over Obama among black voters because of the popularity of her husband, former President Clinton.
"If Clinton was the first black president, she was married to him," said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, campaign manager for former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid. Brazile is the first African-American to head a presidential campaign.
Brazile, an ABC News analyst unaffiliated with any '08 Democratic campaign, said many blacks are leaning toward Clinton because she's well known and has had a long history of supporting issues like civil rights and health care.
However, Brazile said, "Clinton knows there's another candidate on the block."
"Obama is not well known in the African-American community. He's still finding his voice and his presidential rhythm," she said. "But the more Obama talks about his vision for the future — and if African-Americans see themselves playing a role in that — the more African-American voters he could attract."
Public opinion polls suggest the black community has been fairly split over Clinton and Obama.
Clinton had an early lead over Obama among likely Democratic black voters, with 60 percent saying they supported her and 20 percent saying they supported Obama in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released February.
However, recent polls suggest Obama has made significant inroads among black voters.
Obama has 46 percent support among leaned Democrats to Clinton's 40 percent, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll released at the end of July.
Brazile said former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who is polling at 6 percent among likely Democratic black voters, according to the latest ABC poll, hasn't given up wooing them.
Axelrod told National Journal that Edwards "should not be underestimated" especially in the early voting state of Iowa.
"Senator [John] Edwards has been camped out there for five years. And he's got a lot of good relationships there and a lot of strength."
In a newly released ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama is tied with Clinton and Edwards for support among likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers, bringing in 27 percent, 26 percent and 26 percent of the vote respectively.
Democratic strategists say the emphasis on which candidate will win over blacks is recognizing an important voting bloc.
"These candidates know they can't take the African-American vote for granted," said Brazile. "The can't just just drive by the black communities and only come in at the end like they used to."
"There has been a vigorous courting of the African-American community, which is a good thing," said Democratic strategist Paul Brathwaite. "They are going state by state and city by city speaking to issues of importance to African-Americans."
But, he said, black voters, like others, haven't made up their minds yet on whom they will support.
"It's not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination."