Will Democrats vote along racial lines?

Obama’s stand is that he is a presidential candidate who just happens to be black.

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a race against herself in Michigan’s renegade primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton attracted 55 percent of the vote and strong support from whites, Democrats and women. Blacks and independents were among the 40 percent who said they wanted an alternative.

A contest without personal campaigning or television advertising is hardly a leading indicator of future contests.

But it offers hints about the primaries and caucuses ahead, when Barack Obama as well as John Edwards will share the ballot with the former first lady in a race morphing from single-state contests to a grind-it-out, marathon competition for convention delegates.

“Senator Obama and I agree completely that, you know, neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign,” Clinton said Tuesday night in a debate in Las Vegas.

That’s one agreement unlikely to count for much.

Next up for the Democrats are Saturday caucuses in Nevada, where Clinton’s allies already betray concern about the impact of minority voters on her prospects. A handful of her supporters went to court, trying to prevent several so-called at-large precinct caucuses from being held along the Las Vegas strip.

Their concern is that thousands of Culinary Workers local members in Las Vegas, whose union has endorsed Obama, will attend caucuses conveniently located near their work places and hand him a victory. The union represents 60,000 employees, about 45 percent of them Latino, 30 percent white and 10 percent black.

Officially, the Clinton campaign is neutral on the lawsuit. “We hope the courts and the state party resolve this matter,” spokesman Phil Singer said during the day.

But that evenhandedness is hard to square with Clinton’s expressed concern that by their nature, caucuses can disenfranchise voters. “You have a limited period of time on one day to have your voices heard,” she said recently. “That’s troubling to me. You know in a situation of a caucus, people who work during that time — they’re disenfranchised.”

The South Carolina Democratic primary follows next week, the first southern state to vote, with blacks likely to account for at least half the electorate.

The state’s most prominent black politician, Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, has not endorsed any of the contenders. But with his constituents likely to back Obama, he let his veil of neutrality slip recently with comments critical of Clinton.

“We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics,” Clyburn told The New York Times, referring to the civil rights struggle. “It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone’s motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal.”

Clyburn’s remarks followed Clinton’s observation that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”

Whatever Clyburn’s motivation, Obama evidently recognized the possibility for damage to his own hopes for the White House. “I think there’s some intentionality on the part of the Clinton campaign to knock us off message,” he said as the controversy continued.

Never mind the slap at his rival. It was a concession that a full-throated discussion of racial politics wasn’t necessarily in the interests of the man attempting to become the first black president.

Obama’s pitch is that he is running to be a president who happens to be black, a stab at post-racial politics that is a departure from the course taken two decades ago by Jesse Jackson.

The Congressional Black Caucus is split, underscoring the difficult choice that many in Congress face. Excluding lawmakers from New York and Illinois who support their home-state presidential contender, Obama has the backing of 12 black House Democrats, to 10 for Clinton. Edwards has one from outside North Carolina, and the rest are uncommitted.

But Democratic primary voters, clamoring for a change from Bush administration policies, have more on their minds than an internecine struggle among black politicians.

“Let’s get down to brass tacks here,” Christy Tews told Obama at a campaign appearance in Nevada. “We have never elected a black man in our country.”

“I’ve noticed that,” the Illinois senator said. Reassuringly, he added, “I think it’s a wonderful question and I’m glad you asked it.”

He went on to say, “The question is, can we get a majority of the American people to give us a fair hearing? And I believe that I’ve already proven — I mean, folks said I couldn’t win in Iowa, you know? And we, I think, have moved forward as a country in a significant way.”


But already, Obama’s moment of Iowa euphoria gave way to a Clinton victory in New Hampshire that neither campaign saw coming.

Any number of causes has been posited, most or all of them involving race or gender.

Perhaps a hidden racist vote doomed Obama, for example. Maybe Obama’s debate comment that Clinton was “likable enough” grated on female voters. Talk that two men in the race essentially teamed up against the one woman in the same debate is another suggested explanation.

Then there was the matter of Clinton’s brief show of emotion the day before the primary, when her voice quavered after being asked how she coped with the grind of the campaign.

Twenty-four hours later, she became the first woman in history to win a presidential primary.

Two decades ago, Jackson, running as a civil rights figure, rallied blacks to his side and won Democratic presidential primaries in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia.

Yet his candidacy was never designed to seriously challenge his white rivals in big states:

Places like California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri, where the battle between Clinton and Obama will be played out beginning Feb. 5.