Obama's rise spotlights gains in race relations

"We are all searching for the same thing: a better life for ourselves and a better life for our children," says Debbie Seymore, 49, a Hispanic woman from Boca Raton, Fla., who works for a communications company. "I've been working for this company for 27 years now, and every day I wonder, 'Am I going to get laid off?' "

The economy and health care "matter to everybody," says Diana Butler, 56, a school bus attendant from Washington, D.C., who is black, "because everybody is in the same boat."

The 'black experience'

The telephone survey of 1,032 blacks, 543 non-Hispanic whites and 315 Hispanics, who can be of any race, was taken Sept. 11-14, just before last week's Wall Street maelstrom broke into public view. To encourage candid responses to sometimes sensitive questions, three-fourths of the respondents were surveyed by poll takers of their own race. Interviews with Latinos were conducted in English and Spanish.

The racial divide is sharp in the presidential election. Among registered voters:

• Blacks support Obama by 92%-4%.

• Hispanics support Obama by 57%-33%.

• Whites support McCain by 56%-36%.

That partisan divide isn't unusual; African Americans make up the Democrats' most loyal voter group. Four years ago, Democrat John Kerry received 88% of the black vote, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places. Republican George W. Bush received 58% of the white vote.

What's different this time is the high level of engagement by African Americans, which could signal an increase in turnout on Election Day. Blacks are following the presidential contest more closely than whites this year. They are 50% more likely to say they've contributed to a campaign and twice as likely to say they've worked for a candidate.

North Carolina, Alabama and other states also report a jump in voter registration by blacks.

That's true even though Obama usually hasn't chosen to emphasize his race, focusing instead on winning over white voters critical in the Democratic primaries earlier this year and in the general election Nov. 4. At the Democratic convention in Denver last month, the landmark nature of his candidacy was rarely mentioned from the podium.

Some older civil rights leaders, including Jesse Jackson, have complained that Obama has done too little to address issues of particular concern to blacks and that his remarks on the need for more personal responsibility by black fathers and others were an effort to curry white support.

Those complaints have gained little traction, the survey finds. Seven of 10 African Americans say Obama has been addressing issues of special concern to blacks. (Just one-third of whites say that.) By 4-1, blacks say Obama's calls for personal responsibility were made more to appeal to blacks than to whites.

Of those African Americans who say there is a distinctive "black experience" in America, nine of 10 say Obama is in touch with that experience.

Obama's nomination "shows the country is changing for the better a little bit as far as racism is concerned," says Paul Rhodes, 51, a Detroit resident who is black and was surveyed.

"I do think it is a big breakthrough," says Kelly Benchoff, 33, a stay-at-home mom from Tucson who is white. "It's also a great breakthrough that Sarah Palin is on the Republican ticket as well. It doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, black or white, or whatever race you are — it's the ideas you have for the country and who supports you on them."

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