Who Won the Showdown in Selma?

March 5, 2007 — -- Sunday's march in Selma, Ala., may have been a sacred commemoration of the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march of 1965, but beneath it all lurked raw politics, with Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., competing fiercely for black voters.

While local churches were packed with parishioners, just a few hundred yards apart on Martin Luther King Jr. Street, the rival Democratic presidential candidates made their pitches, both praising civil rights leaders for paving their way.

"Don't tell me I'm not coming home when I come to Selma, Ala. I'm here because somebody marched for our freedom. I'm here because y'all sacrificed for me," Obama told a crowd.

Meanwhile, at 709 Martin Luther King St., Clinton told parishioners at First Baptist Church that "the Voting Rights Act gave more Americans from every corner of our nation the chance to live out their dreams. And it is the gift that keeps on giving. Today it is giving Sen. Obama the chance to run for president of the United States. And by its logic and spirit, it is giving the same chance to [New Mexico] Gov. Bill Richardson, an Hispanic. And, yes, it is giving me that chance, too."

Black voters are crucial for both front-runners as their campaigns calculate the math that will lead to their nominations. The fierce competition between the two was not only evident in their presence this weekend, but in the the steps they took to connect with the crowds.

Raised in Illinois and representing New York, Clinton effected a sporadic but curious Southern drawl in her speech. "I" became "Ahhh," "far" morphed into "fahhhr," and "mayor" suddenly sounded like "mare."

And how about Obama? Well, he credited the "Bloody Sunday" civil rights marchers of 1965 with the fact that his parents -- a black African father and white Kansas mother -- were empowered to fall in love and got married.

"They looked at each other and they decided, 'We know that in the world, as it has been, it might not be possible for us to get together and have a child, but something is stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Ala., because some folks are willing to march across the bridge.' And so they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Ala.!"

Obama was born in 1961; the Selma march was four years later. Obama said later that he meant to credit the entire civil rights movement with his parents' union, not just the Bloody Sunday marchers.

'Put on Your Marching Shoes'

Obama's eloquent piety is seldom received better than in a church full of Democrats, especially black ones.

This weekend, he wowed them with his call for a new generation of black leaders to get to work and get to the polls, referring to the Selma marchers as the "Moses generation," and the new generation as the "Joshua generation."

"If Cousin Pookie would vote, if Uncle Jethro would get off the couch and stop watching 'SportsCenter,' and go register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics," Obama said to the applauding crowd. "That's what the Moses generation teaches us. Kick off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes, go do some politics, change this country."

But Clinton had a secret weapon of her own: her husband, former President Clinton, who was, and remains, hugely popular with black voters.

She mentioned him many times in her speech, though the former president was not given the chance to overshadow her by speaking from the pulpit.

So who won the political Selma showdown?

"It puts a higher burden on her. She [Clinton] has to clearly beat him rhetorically, and in Selma he did darn well," said former presidential adviser David Gergen. "Watching those crowds follow him around is almost like watching Tiger Woods on the golf course."

Unlike a few weeks ago when there was that ugly dust-up between their campaigns, the candidates at this historical commemoration played nice.

Obama said Clinton was "doing an outstanding job on behalf of this country," and Clinton said it was "exciting" to have Obama in the race.

But make no mistake, away from the cameras, both presidential candidates and their campaigns are doing what they can to defeat the other with tactics that might not always stand the scrutiny of a Sunday morning church pulpit.