Feb. 16, 2007 -- As Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., heads to South Carolina this weekend for the first time as a presidential candidate, he steps right into a Dixie briar patch of racial politics.
Up to 50 percent of South Carolina's Democratic primary voters are African-American, so the Palmetto State is a state the Obama campaign is targeting. But can Obama count on black voters to vote for a black candidate? Will his race affect the decision-making process of white voters? Such questions are uncomfortable but Obama's credible candidacy forces them into the open.
While a recent ABC News poll indicates that 84 percent of Americans say a candidate being black would not affect their vote, the dirty little secret is what some pollsters and consultants call "the 15 percent lie" -- the supposed percentage of whites who tell pollsters they would be willing to vote for a black candidate but in the privacy of the voting booth never actually would.
Obama and the Democratic Ticket
A prominent African-American leader in South Carolina, who endorsed the presidential race of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., this weekend, broached this subject when announcing his endorsement. Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford told the Associated Press that Obama as the Democratic nominee would "doom" every other Democrat on the ticket because America would never vote for a black presidential candidate.
"Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he's black and he's top of the ticket," Ford said in comments he later disowned. "We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything."
The Race for Endorsements
Whatever the reason behind the endorsement, in a January ABC News poll, Clinton led Obama among African-American voters, 60 percent to 20 percent. And competition for backing from major black leaders is fierce, particularly between Clinton and Obama.
In recent days, Obama secured the endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and ABC News has learned that Clinton has secured the backing of Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the Charlotte Bobcats NBA team. Johnson has supported Obama in the past.
"Obama does an excellent job in the Senate representing Illinois, and he's doing an excellent job building up his credibility to be part of the U.S. political scene for a long time to come," Johnson told ABC News. "But taking nothing away from Barack Obama, it's not a difficult decision -- I'm absolutely convinced Hillary Clinton will be the best president."
Democratic state Sen. Darrell Jackson also endorsed Clinton.
"I think it's good for America that Sen. Obama is running," Jackson told ABC News. "But when you're making this choice I don't think you make it based on race, gender, you don't make it based on anything other than who you think will be the next best president for this country."
Jackson, pastor of the 7,000-member Bible Way Church in Columbia, is also principal owner of the public relations firm Sunrise Enterprises, which is close to signing a lucrative contract with the Clinton campaign. Jackson insists "the contract had nothing to do with" his endorsement.
"We had an offer on the table from just about every major candidate ... I'm not bragging but we could have gone anywhere we wanted to, whatever amount we wanted to go for." Jackson said Clinton "is the best-qualified candidate to lead on day one. The day after the election I think the senator can enter the White House and begin governing with much on the job training."
The Politics of Race
Racial politics are dicey.
Obama has already faced accusations of being "too black" and "not black enough." On last weekend's Saturday Night Live, actors playing the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton offered advice to Obama to figure out a good place on the "blackness scale."
"There is only so much blackness the American voter can take," the actor playing Jackson said. "Now if you're here with the Black-Eyed Peas, you'll be fine."
"But once you get up into here," said the actor playing Sharpton, "you're moving into Allen Iverson territory."
"And that's unelectable," said the actor playing Jackson.
When Obama ran for the House in 2000 he lost to Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., in a predominantly black district where some in the community said Obama was not black enough.
Rush is supporting Obama today but has cautioned Obama that leaders of the African-American community "do have an outstanding long-term relationship with Hillary Clinton (and former President) Bill Clinton and to ignore that would be foolish on his part."
Rush said Obama "has to do some intensive work in the black community. I think he's fully capable of doing it, but he can't take the black vote for granted."
These are not new issues for Obama, of course.
In a 2003 interview with Jeff Berkowitz of the Chicago show "Public Affairs," Obama insisted that the fact that another African-American candidate was running in the Democratic primary would not necessarily hurt his campaign.
"I'm rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not limited to it," Obama said. "We are going to be competitive in every part of the state among every demographic."
"Sen. Obama has said that he does not want the vote based on the color of his skin, and I think all of us should treat this campaign as he has asked for us to treat it," state Sen. Jackson said. "Not to treat him based on the color of his skin but look at his platform, look at his vision on who we think would be best for this country."