ATLANTA -- With the black vote a key to the upcoming round of southern primaries, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton began wooing minority voters yesterday with a visit to one of the country's most prestigious black colleges.
"My commitment to equal opportunity, equal participation, economic empowerment and the liberation of people from the chains that keep them down are things that should appeal on the merits to black voters all across the South, all across the country," the Arkansas governor said during a visit to Atlanta's Morehouse College, which counts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as its most famous graduate.
Mr. Clinton posed for pictures with Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, one of the most revered figures from the civil rights movement and a King associate. Looming behind them, as the shutters clicked, was a heroic statue of Dr. King, silhouetted against a slate blue sky.
But inside the King International Chapel, where Mr. Clinton faced tough questions from students, there was a different sort of symbolism: empty seats. When he began speaking, the hall was barely one-third filled, and when he finished, 45 minutes later, most of the audience had drifted away.
Among the current crop of candidates, Mr. Clinton is favored to get the largest share of black support. That is especially true in southern and border states, where the black vote is heavily concentrated.
He has won the backing of some influential black churchmen and a large number of black elected officials. So many, in fact, that the stage at a Clinton rally in Atlanta partially collapsed under their weight. Today, he'll be endorsed by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a fellow Yale graduate.
But the larger question is whether Mr. Clinton, or any other Democrat, can generate much real excitement among rank-and-file black voters.
For the first time in 12 years, there is no major black contender in the presidential field. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who ran in 1984 and 1988, is currently on the sidelines, and the one candidate who did announce, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, withdrew months before the primaries began.
Only Mr. Clinton, a Southerner, has been able to connect with black voters. Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska have never campaigned much for black votes, and former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas' pro-business pitch seems to be aimed more at upscale suburbanites than minorities.
"So far, the winner is undecided," Mr. Jackson said in an interview yesterday.
Most of the seven million Jackson voters in 1988, mainly blacks, aren't perceived as being well acquainted with the 1992 hopefuls. "They're national candidates but not national leaders," says Mr. Jackson, who has refused to endorse a candidate.
In Georgia, which holds the first southern primary on March 3, blacks cast more than one out of every three votes (36 percent) in the 1988 Democratic contest, according to an ABC News exit poll. Mr. Jackson, who received 93 percent of the black vote, won Georgia that year, with 40 percent of the vote.
Mr. Clinton made his first stab yesterday at offering blacks a reason why they should support his candidacy.
He touted his record of appointing more blacks to government jobs than any previous governor and lists proposals that he says would benefit the poor and minorities.
These include giving families cash for child care and tax credits for workers who remain below the poverty line, increased funding for preschool programs like Head Start, tougher enforcement of child support payments and making college more widely available.
He also cited his support for making the predominantly black District of Columbia the 51st state, allowing adults to register to vote when they get their driver's license "and a lot of things on Rev. Jackson's agenda."
That includes considering a black running mate, he told a group of Morehouse students after his speech. He mentioned former Rep. William H. Gray III of Philadelphia and said that he would not rule out Mr. Jackson.
The presidential hopeful was forced to defend his support for the death penalty, which Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, the leading Clinton backer in the state, has cited as a major reason why Georgians should support Mr. Clinton. Last month, Mr. Clinton allowed a convicted murderer to be put to death in Arkansas amid sharp criticism from death penalty opponents.