Race a Central Issue for Clinton, Obama in Georgia

Georgia voters are drawn to Obama by more than just race.

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Obama after a service at a church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached in Atlanta.

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ATLANTA— Georgia has long held a special place for the Clinton clan. In 1992 it was the first state where Bill Clinton clinched a primary victory. But when the polls open here on Super Tuesday, Hillary Clinton may find it difficult to repeat her husband's performance because of the growing popularity of one man: Barack Obama.

Georgia has an open primary and holds the sixth-largest number of delegates (103 for the Democrats) on February 5—and both front-runners are fighting hard for them. They've visited the state multiple times, campaigning and fundraising.

Yet the fiercest contest among Democrats in Georgia is for blacks, who represent nearly half of Democratic primary voters. Though Obama has tried not to make his candidacy about race, blacks have been a pivotal factor in his surge across the South, particularly in his victory in South Carolina. The demographic is expected to help him across Georgia as well, political analysts say.

Obama has won strong support from black leaders—including endorsements from civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin—but at least as many have thrown their hats in the Clinton camp. Among Clinton's backers are civil rights leaders, including Rep. John Lewis and former Atlanta Mayor and Rep. Andrew Young, as well as younger leaders like Atlanta City Council member Kwanza Hall.

Both Clinton and Obama have offices across the state, and their campaign stops have targeted the black community. Obama, for instance, spoke at a Sunday service before Martin Luther King Day at King's former church, Ebenezer. Bill Clinton gave a speech there the next day. Chelsea Clinton, stumping for her mother, visited Atlanta last week too to meet with students at Spelman, a black women's college.

"It points out how important the issue of race is and how important within the Democratic coalition African-Americans are," says Adam Stone, a political science professor at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody.

Obama Country

The South Carolina results had hardly been announced, but debate was already raging inside the Beautiful Restaurant, a church-run soul food eatery in Atlanta. One regular, an older black man, thought the almost exclusively black clientele's preference for Obama was misguided. White people wouldn't vote for a black man so they should all support Clinton, he told them. "They ran him on out of there," Linzy Scott, a retired 73-year-old doctor, explained of the Obama naysayer.

This was Obama territory, and over a late-afternoon lunch, a crowd of black men and a few women, most upward of 60, talked about their support for Obama. For them, Obama represented a confluence of change and hope, a symbol for black youth as much as a bridge across the political divide in America. That he is black was a draw, but that alone, they said, was not the reason they supported him. "It's irrelevant whether this man is black, white, green, red, or whatever," Scott said. "It is irrelevant now with the war we've got going, with the economy we've got going, with the dropping of the dollar. If there is somebody that can get you out of a mess, it's somebody who's gotten out of a mess himself."

Steve Campbell, a 60-year-old former salesman wearing an Obama pin, countered the argument that Obama doesn't have enough experience. "Experience has gotten us where we are today," he said. He is worried about the economy, healthcare, education, and the country's image abroad—something he experienced firsthand during international travel in 2003 and 2004.

Something needs to be done and done differently, they thought. And that is why Richard Jenkins, a 57-year-old probation officer for Fulton County, said he was siding with Obama. "Because he hasn't been there, he's able to see things in a different light," Jenkins said.

Joe Taylor, a 68-year-old small-business man, put it simply: "I think we need a total change."

Of course, not everyone was so quick to put aside the question of race. Atlanta native Harole McGuire, 76, summed up his support for Obama in two words. "He's black," he said, adding, "[Even] if he don't have a policy, I'm going to vote for him. He's my man."