From his command post in a tumbledown frame house with used furniture for sale on the front porch, Robert Clark is putting Mississippi's racial traditions and Democratic Party loyalty to a historic test.
As the Democratic nominee from the newly reapportioned 2nd Congressional District, half-black and full of lifelong "yellow dog" Democrats, he should be packing for Washington, D.C. But Clark is black, and Mississippi has not sent a black to Congress since Reconstruction days in 1883.
Most political analysts give Clark, 52, a veteran state legislator who has a masters degree from Michigan State and has been a fellow at the Kennedy school of government at Harvard, an even chance against Republican Webb Franklin. Franklin is an amiable white lawyer and former circuit judge who changed parties.
Democratic Party loyalists such as Gov. William F. Winter are out stumping for Clark, lauding him as a powerful advocate for poor black sharecroppers and white planters, for educators and labor and someone virtually guaranteed top committee assignments in Congress if he takes the seat being vacated by retiring five-term Rep. David R. Bowen (D-Miss.).
How hard party leaders sell Clark could affect the future of the Democratic Party here. Charles Evers, ex-mayor of Fayette, threatened to run as an independent against Rep. Wayne Dowdy (D-Miss.) in the 4th Congressional District unless Clark got the nomination. That's just the most recent reminder that in the past blacks have siphoned off enough votes from the Democrats to help send Republicans to Washington.
Clark has been endorsed by Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) and the governor is scheduled to attend a fund-raiser hosted by the Democratic members of the Mississippi congressional delegation in Washington Tuesday.
A federal court carved out the Delta congressional district this summer, with a majority black population but a voting majority that is 53 percent white. Enter Clark, handpicked to run by the district's black leadership at a caucus in July.
Clark's candidacy has a powerful symbolism. A black Mississippi congressman from a white voting majority district would signal an era of racial harmony in a state eager to leave its violent past to the history books, Gov. Winter said.
The mild-mannered Clark has been deliberately low-key in trying to woo white voters with his reputation as a hard-working legislator who learned to get along in the white-dominated state legislature.
At Jimbo's, a roadside cafe 23 miles outside Jackson, manager Connie Lawrence huffed to the candidate, "We don't need a black man who will just listen to black people, but all the people."
"I agree," Clark said.
Yet the issue of race threatens to intrude, with Franklin's television ads proclaiming, "He's one of us." This is tantamount to shouting "He's white," Clark supporters said.
Clark responds that the slogan has backfired among moderate whites.
Franklin, 40, counters that he is running on "glaring" philosophical differences between a fiscal conservative and a "national Democratic Party liberal," not race.
"The only time race has been brought up is by his campaign," Franklin said in an interview. "Of course, we don't hear anything about black racists. He was nominated by a black caucus that was 100 percent black as the black candidate."
Clark amazed analysts by defeating three white opponents in the Aug. 17 primary with 57 percent of the vote. But party strategists say he needs at least 15 percent of the white votes to win the Nov. 2 election.
"He's as qualified a black man as you could ask for," said Ed Perry, powerful state House appropriations committee chairman who served with Clark since 1968. "But if you held a gun to my head, I'd have to say the white candidate has the advantage of numbers.
"It keeps coming back to race: how many whites will decide their navel won't fall off and their house won't fall down if they vote for a black man. If he were white, there wouldn't be a race."