ATLANTA -- In the heart of downtown Atlanta, a majority black city that boasts a thriving middle class, only a sprinkling of African Americans joined the dozens of supporters who filled an ornate room at the Georgia Capitol last week to hear Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). A few days earlier, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) drew more than 1,000 to a lively town hall meeting in the city's Buckhead section, and except for the dozen or so black leaders who sat behind him on stage, the audience was mostly white.
But that does not mean that black voters such as Antonio Bolton are uninterested in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary. Bolton, 40, a father of two who counts himself fortunate to have a well-paying job, said he is furious at President Bush, blaming him for running up the federal deficit and dragging the country into war with Iraq. He studied the Democratic candidates by watching televised debates, reading newspapers and surfing the Internet. He has decided to vote for Kerry.
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) spoke recently with Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
(Jim Bourg -- Reuters)
"He's the strongest Democratic candidate we have, and we need to get the Republicans out of there," said Bolton, who lives in the East Point section of Atlanta.
With little prodding from the two major candidates, black voters have joined the Democratic Party's quest to take back the White House this year. Turnout among black voters in states that have held primaries is 10 to 20 percent higher than it was in 1992, the last time the party had a real contest for the nomination, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington-based liberal think tank.
Here in Georgia, a nonbinding referendum on the state flag -- lawmakers are still trying to settle the long-running debate over whether the Confederate flag should be depicted in the Peach State's official banner -- could bring out more black voters Tuesday. In the 2000 Democratic presidential primary, more than 40 percent of Georgia voters were African Americans.
Edwards has targeted Georgia as one of the 10 Super Tuesday states that he hopes to win to keep his campaign alive. But with the exception of South Carolina, where Edwards was born and has posted his only first-place showing, black voters have overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Kerry, citing his experience and their belief that he can defeat Bush. Al Sharpton, the New York civil rights activist, has failed to re-create the large African American participation that Jesse L. Jackson brought to the Democratic primaries in 1984 and 1988. Black voters say they appreciate Sharpton's candidacy, but they have no interest in using their votes to make a statement -- they want to oust Bush and they think Kerry is their best shot.
In states where African American voters are significantly represented, Kerry polled higher among black voters than among white voters. In Virginia, where African Americans make up about a third of Democratic voters, Kerry got 46 percent of white voters and 61 percent of African American voters. In South Carolina, where about half the electorate was African American, Kerry ran only 3 percentage points behind Edwards's 37 percent share of the black vote, with Sharpton getting 17 percent.
"For black Democrats and white Democrats, their calculus is pretty much the same: They want to get rid of George W. Bush," said David A. Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center. "George W. Bush represents everything -- war, violation of civil rights, tax cuts for the rich and program cuts for everybody else. There's not one issue that really much matters; it's the whole package."
If any single issue matters, exit polls have shown, it is the economy, which was the top issue for black voters in South Carolina, followed by health care. White voters expressed the same priorities. In Virginia, the economy again ranked first for black and white voters, with health care a close second among African Americans; the war in Iraq was second for whites. The electability factor ranked higher for white voters, although it was among the top three traits that African Americans sought in a candidate.
African Americans who say they will vote for Kerry explain their support in pragmatic terms, displaying little emotional attachment to the candidate. Edwards supporters are more apt to say his background makes him better able to understand the plight of working-class people. Although Edwards, a former trial lawyer, is now a multimillionaire, a standard part of his stump speech is how he was born to working-class parents and worked his way through college. He always talks of the two Americas -- of the haves and the have-nots.
"I like his connection to the common folk . . . the fact he's rich now, but he wasn't always rich," said Claudie Biassou, 40, a real estate agent who came to see Edwards speak at the Georgia Capitol. Biassou, who lives in Marietta, and her husband both lost their jobs when the company they worked for folded in 2000. She said when Edwards talks about how his early struggles have given him a better understanding of the pain of losing a job, "I think he's sincere."
Still, this year's candidates do not appear to evoke the same intensity among black voters as the political figures to whom they are sometimes compared: Kerry is a Massachusetts liberal, but he is not John F. Kennedy, whose eventual embrace of the civil rights struggle made him an icon to African Americans; Edwards is a charismatic southerner, but he is not Bill Clinton, whose cultural sensitivity prompted writer Toni Morrison to declare him America's first black president; and Sharpton is an activist minister, but he is not Jackson, who won in six states and came in second in more than two dozen others in his 1988 campaign.
"The black vote has matured. It's a different season," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign four years ago. "It's not a season for the traditional civil rights argument -- they want to hear about jobs, reducing the cost of health care. They want to see a change in the White House. . . . Electability is more important to them than someone who agrees with them on every issue."
Edward Durdan, 45, who owns a mortgage company in Atlanta, said Bush's tax cuts have worked in his favor. "The problem is, I don't like the way it takes all the money from the bottom and gives it to people at the top," he said. Similarly, Durdan said he believes the United States should have acted to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, "but I don't like the way Bush handled it. It's a question of honesty."
So Durdan said he will vote for Kerry. "His record can stand up to Bush," he said of the Democrat, whom he saw last year at a fundraiser. "I do like Edwards, but I don't think he's strong enough to beat Bush. I like Sharpton, I'm glad he's in the race to keep our issues in the discussion, but he doesn't have a chance."
Although both the Kerry and Edwards campaigns have African Americans in senior positions, neither candidate has invested extensive time and resources in courting black voters. All of the candidates spent much of the fall and winter preparing for the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, where black voters are virtually nonexistent.
Edwards has made five trips to Georgia, and spent more time personally campaigning for black voters, visiting black colleges and meeting with a coalition of black civil rights leaders. Kerry spent the morning of Feb. 22 at historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, and has the endorsement of the state's most prominent black elected official, Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader. Kerry returns Monday, after an appearance at Morgan State University, a traditionally black college in Baltimore.
Candice Holt, a sophomore majoring in criminal justice at Georgia State University in Atlanta, said she had been inspired by the insurgent campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Since he quit the race, she has been eyeing Edwards, whom she saw for the first time last week when he spoke at the state Capitol. She said she is looking for a candidate to fix the economy so that there will be jobs waiting for her when she graduates.
At the end of Edwards's speech, Holt said she liked what she had heard. "I really enjoyed the part about the jobs."
Assistant polling director Claudia Deane in Washington contributed to this report.