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Democrats Face Racial Issue Again

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - March 17, 2008
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Democrats Face Racial Issue Again
By Patrick Healy and Jeff Zeleny
The New York Times

After the Democratic primary in South Carolina turned 
racially divisive in January, Senators Hillary Rodham 
Clinton and Barack Obama essentially declared a truce 
and put a stop to fighting between their camps. But 
this week, race has once again begun casting a pall 
over the battle between the two. 

On Wednesday a close ally of Mrs. Clinton, Geraldine A. 
Ferraro, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1984 
who was on the Clinton finance committee, resigned from 
the campaign after being criticized by Mr. Obama's 
advisers, among others, for her recent comments that "if 
Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position" 
as a leading presidential contender. 

Ms. Ferraro did not disavow that remark. Mrs. Clinton, 
while calling it regrettable, did not break with her. 

Mr. Obama, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he 
did not believe that there was "a directive in the Clinton 
campaign saying, 'Let's heighten the racial elements in 
the campaign.' I certainly wouldn't want to think that." 

He said he was puzzled at how, after more than a year of 
campaigning, race and sex are at the forefront as never 
before. 

"I don't want to deny the role of race and gender in our 
society," he said. "They're there, and they're powerful. 
But I don't think it's productive." 

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Yet race, as well as sex, have been unavoidable subtexts 
of the Democratic campaign since the two candidates began 
seeking to be the first African-American or the first 
woman to lead a party's presidential ticket. In the 
primaries and caucuses this winter, too, Mrs. Clinton 
has enjoyed substantial support from women, while Mr. 
Obama has increasingly drawn overwhelming votes from 
blacks. 

The Tuesday primary in Mississippi, a state where the 
electorate has historically been racially polarized, 
generated one of the most divided votes. Mrs. Clinton 
received 8 percent of the black vote, and Mr. Obama 
received 26 percent of the white vote, according to exit 
polls by Edison/Mitofsky for The Associated Press and 
television networks. 

Mrs. Clinton's advisers said Wednesday that they were 
concerned about her standing among blacks, once a core 
constituency for her and her husband, but that they also 
believed that black support for Mr. Obama was a foregone 
conclusion at this point. 

They said they were wrestling with ways to make inroads 
with blacks in Pennsylvania, which holds the next primary, 
on April 22. 

Mrs. Clinton's reluctance to sideline Ms. Ferraro, who 
made her comments last week to The Daily Breeze in 
Torrance, Calif., left the specter of race hanging over 
the Democratic contest. 

That decision drew a sharp rebuke on Wednesday from the 
Rev. Al Sharpton, the black political leader in New York 
and a former presidential candidate, who questioned 
whether Mrs. Clinton's campaign was keeping the issue 
alive as a way to win white votes in Pennsylvania. 

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In addition to Ms. Ferraro's remark, Mr. Sharpton cited 
Mrs. Clinton's decision not to fire her top ally in 
Pennsylvania, Gov. Edward G. Rendell, for saying in 
February that some white voters there were "probably 
not ready to vote for an African-American candidate." 

"When you hear the lack of total denunciation of Ferraro, 
when you hear Rendell saying there are whites who will 
never vote for a black, one has to wonder if the Clinton 
campaign has a Pennsylvania strategy to appeal to voters 
on race," Mr. Sharpton said in an interview. "I would 
hope Mrs. Clinton would make it clear that she is not 
doing that." 

Mr. Sharpton ran against Ms. Ferraro in 1992 in New York 
in a primary for a Senate seat. 

Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign's communications 
director, said in response: "She has made it clear. She 
makes it clear all the time." 

From virtually the start of the contest between Mrs. 
Clinton and Mr. Obama in January 2007, they have sought 
to move beyond race and sex, acknowledging that their 
possible nominations would be historic, yet saying they 
were running on their qualifications. 

At the same time, each has used the issue against the 
other. Mr. Obama's advisers suggested that Mrs. Clinton 
was playing the sex card last fall after a brutal debate 
where several male contenders criticized her. 

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Mrs. Clinton's advisers and former President Bill Clinton 
suggested that black candidates like Mr. Obama had done 
well in South Carolina because of support among African-
Americans there. 

Although Mr. Obama did not directly call on Ms. Ferraro 
to quit the campaign finance committee, his aides worked 
to keep the issue alive. They set up a conference call 
with reporters to draw attention to the comment. 

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama called the remark wrongheaded but 
said he did not believe that Ms. Ferraro intended it to 
be racist. 

"The Clinton campaign has talked more during the course 
of the last few months about what groups are supporting 
her and what groups are supporting me and trying to make 
a case that the reason she should be the nominee is that 
there are a set of voters that Obama might not get," he 
said. "And that seems to track in a certain racial 
demographic." 

Mr. Obama's advisers noted that his support among whites 
in Mississippi increased, to a small degree, over that in 
South Carolina, when some Democrats had feared that Mr. 
Obama could be called a candidate who appealed just to 
black voters. 

Race has been a defining feature of the primary contests. 
Beyond Mississippi, Mrs. Clinton was backed by 5 percent 
of black voters in Illinois, Mr. Obama's home state; 8 
percent in Wisconsin, where black voters made up 8 percent 
of the Democratic primary vote; 9 percent in Delaware; 
10 percent in Virginia; and 11 percent in Georgia, all 
states Mr. Obama won. 

Mr. Obama's 26 percent support among whites in Tuesday's 
primary was one of his worst performances with this group. 

He had previously been supported by 16 percent of white 
voters in Arkansas; 23 percent in Florida, where the 
candidates did not actively campaign; 24 percent in South 
Carolina, where John Edwards was still competing; and 
25 percent in Alabama. 

--------

Dalia Sussman contributed reporting. 

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