African Americans

Sen. Barack Obama appeared at a St. Louis rally for a Senate candidate in 2006. This campaign season, the city's black voters say they've had little exposure to him.
Sen. Barack Obama appeared at a St. Louis rally for a Senate candidate in 2006. This campaign season, the city's black voters say they've had little exposure to him. (By Charlie Riedel -- Associated Press)
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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- Sen. Barack Obama's appeal to African Americans will face a critical test Tuesday when he attempts to win droves of black votes in states where he hasn't campaigned extensively.

In South Carolina, Obama made dozens of appearances, and his campaign repeatedly called and visited voters to help deliver a primary victory in which about 80 percent of blacks voted for him.

But African American voters here in St. Louis, one of several major cities with majority-black populations that will cast ballots on Tuesday, say they've had little exposure to Obama beyond seeing him on television and in the commercials he has run over the past two weeks. The controversial remarks that former president Bill Clinton made likening Obama's candidacy to Jesse Jackson's didn't register much here among voters, most of whom had not heard them.

Obama made his fourth visit to St. Louis on Saturday, and campaign officials planned to ramp up their door-knocking and phone-calling efforts over the weekend. They've long been in touch with local church and community leaders via conference calls.

"I've seen a lot of TV commercials, but I haven't seen a lot of banners or signs," said David Walker, a construction worker from North St. Louis, a majority-black area.

That doesn't mean Obama is not well liked. Walker said he plans to vote for Obama because the senator from Illinois "wants to make change." Veria Shaw, who said she is supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York because she liked her husband's presidency, said most of the people in her neighborhood back Obama.

"They think he's good for a change," said Shaw, a bill collector in St. Louis. "I know we need a change, but I think her husband did good."

The Obama campaign is working hard for a strong turnout among urban black voters in St. Louis. His campaign argues that this is what would make him more electable than Clinton in November, when large turnouts in such precincts could be key for winning states such as Missouri that are more or less equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

That, of course, assumes blacks will choose Obama in large numbers. National polls have shown that black voters favor him, but by smaller margins than in South Carolina's primary. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 62 percent of blacks favor Obama nationally.

The choice between Obama and Clinton, according to people interviewed here, will not be about issues. African Americans in St. Louis said they are concerned about the economy, the war in Iraq and health care, and largely see the two candidates as having similar views.

So there is talk about the uniqueness of a black president vs. Clinton's experience and an affinity toward her husband. "It's a toss-up," said Venchelle Temple, a retired nurses' assistant, as she waited for a bus on a snowy day in North St. Louis. "Hillary Clinton is good because she's a woman, Obama because he is a black man. It's time for change, and a black man and a woman are both change."

Temple is undecided, but as she spoke about the election with Lee Jones, who does maintenance work in apartment buildings and favors Obama, they had largely similar views. They both spoke positively about Obama, but worried about whether the nation is ready for a black president and whether he would be in any danger.

"If a black man is ever elected, they're going to be after him," Jones said. If Obama is nominated, Temple said, "McCain will win."

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