Clinton Has Endorsements, Ties to Blacks; Enthusiasm Seen Lacking
ATLANTA (AP) _ Sean Barnave walked out of the Morehouse College auditorium alternately nodding and shaking his head.
″He’s saying a lot of things that need to be said and he says them with a sense of conviction and credibility,″ Barnave said of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s call for racial healing. ″But I’m not sure I believe any of them.″
It appears Barnave is far from alone.
As the Democratic presidential campaign shifts to the South and other states with significant black populations, Clinton has the overwhelming edge in endorsements from black elected officials and church and community leaders.
But whether that support, which Clinton aggressively courted, translates to votes remains to be seen. Neither Clinton nor his Democratic rivals have sparked the kind of interest among black voters that Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns did.
″A lot of African Americans are certainly disenchanted with the whole system,″ said Barnave, a sophomore at Morehouse.
The black vote could make the difference for a Democratic candidate in a hotly contested state such as Maryland, where blacks represent about a quarter of Democratic primary voters.
Cleveland Beckett, a New Yorker going to college in Atlanta, says blacks can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and blame the candidates for not inspiring them.
″We need to participate in this campaign,″ said Beckett, adding that he will vote for either Clinton or former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in Georgia’s primary on Tuesday. ″We need people to take a stand. Power comes only through participation.″
This year’s primary was heralded at the outset as a wide-open competition for black votes. Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who is black, was given the clear edge, and his early exit from the race was expected to set off a scramble for black support.
But only Clinton has made a concerted effort.
A recent Georgia poll showed 43 percent of blacks supporting Clinton; 16 percent Tsongas. One quarter were undecided a week before the primary.
The undecideds are the targets of a Clinton radio ad in which Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr., says Clinton will ″keep the dream alive and build a better future for all.″
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson is urging blacks to coalesce behind Clinton, arguing that spreading their votes will dilute their power.
Many younger blacks, however, openly question whether they should follow that philosophy.
″I’m an individual and plan to vote as one,″ said Morehouse student Anthony Dome, 19. ″I’ll look at the people supporting (Clinton) but ultimately make my own decision.″
Jackson won Georgia’s 1988 primary with overwhelming black support. Overall, he received more than 90 percent of the black vote cast in Democratic primaries, a margin none of the current candidates is likely to approach.
″I just don’t think blacks are going to vote in great numbers,″ said Bert Lance, a former adviser to Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson. ″I just don’t sense a great deal of interest.″
In making his pitch to blacks, Clinton often stresses his Southern upbringing, telling black audiences they know all too well that ″our region was kept dumb and poor by dividing us against each other.″
Clinton’s support for the death penalty and his occasional feuds with Jackson have prompted serious questions among black voters.
″Our people are not at all excited about Mr. Clinton,″ says Georgia Rainbow Coalition leader Joseph Beasley, who has been wooed by Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey.
Kerrey, who also supports the death penalty, attracted many of Wilder’s top campaign aides, and has made a late push into Georgia’s black community.
In South Carolina, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin picked up the backing of Jackson supporter Kevin Gray and other Rainbow Coalition leaders. Gray was reprimanded last week for leaking to newspapers the transcript of a radio ad, never aired, that criticized Clinton’s stand on capital punishment as using ″a black man’s death for political gain.″
Tsongas has garnered a smattering of black support in Georgia and elsewhere, stressing his economic ideas as the best ladder to success.
″He understands and I understand ... the best social program, the best human services program is a good job,″ Georgia state Rep. Michael Thurman said in endorsing Tsongas.
Blacks who support rival candidates acknowledge Clinton is likely to get the majority of the black vote in the coming Southern primaries. But they also predict a significant drop in turnout from the record levels inspired by Jesse Jackson.
″I don’t think there is a consensus,″ said William Gibson, national chairman of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s board of directors. ″Time is short. I have not seen a massive effort on the part of anyone.″