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Blacks embracing Clinton as an act of political faith


During old-fashioned street campaigning in predominantly black West Philadelphia, Bill Clinton was grasping hands and accepting good wishes last week when Bah-Bai Makenta, a project planner at the University of Pennsylvania, asked: "Will you appoint blacks to Cabinet-level positions?"

"Absolutely," Mr. Clinton replied. "You can expect when I win we'll have the most racially diverse administration ever."

"You've got my vote," Mr. Makenta assured him.

But just one more thing, he said. "Do something to let Jesse save face."

The plea comes as Mr. Clinton appears on the verge of a victory after using a strategy that seemed to take black voters for granted and ignored Jesse Jackson.

More than any other demographic group, blacks form the most reliable base of the Democratic Party, consistently voting Democratic for nearly three decades and in close elections making the difference between winning and losing. Mr. Jackson, as the most famous and charismatic national black leader in American politics, has been responsible for registering millions of blacks and urging them to the polls Nov. 3.

Mr. Makenta's concern about Mr. Jackson saving face reflects a discomforting recognition among many blacks that while Mr. Jackson may not have been treated well by Mr. Clinton, he may no longer represent the future.

While Mr. Jackson led a party-sponsored voter-registration drive this year, he hasn't been on the front lines for Mr. Clinton. Other young black leaders -- Reps. Mike Espy of Mississippi and William Jefferson of Louisiana among them -- have emerged, and from the beginning, they backed Mr. Clinton to the hilt.

Now it appears that many black voters are coming on board, too -- with or without Mr. Jackson.

With the probability growing daily that a Democrat will win the presidency for the first time in 12 years, the reservations that many blacks harbored about Mr. Clinton are giving way to pragmatism.

"He's winning -- you can't argue with it," noted Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, who represents the South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood that blew up this spring. "If we want change, our only hope is with Clinton."

Black support for Mr. Clinton is based on three realities: strong anti-Bush fervor; an economic message that promises to bring blacks along with whites, and trust that Mr. Clinton will do the right thing by blacks once he is in office, even though he has left them on the sidelines.

Ms. Waters admitted she's going on faith. "I expect him to be our friend because he said he would be," she said.

The faith is based in part on Mr. Clinton's history. As a Southerner, he grew up with racial conflict and fought it from an early age. He sends his daughter to public school in Little Rock. As governor of Arkansas, he appointed more blacks to his administration than all his predecessors combined. And in the early primaries of his presidential campaign, he spoke from the pulpits of urban black churches, demonstrating a rapport with blacks that even Mr. Jackson has acknowledged.

Mr. Clinton frequently says his goal is to unite Americans across the divisions of race, gender and income and insists that by speaking broadly to America as a whole, rather than to individual interests, he can lift up everyone together.

Still, Mr. Clinton's message of lifting up everyone together gives some blacks pause.

"He comes pretty close to the trickle-down mindset -- 'If we get the economy moving again, which is my objective, everybody will benefit,' " said Milton Morris, vice president for research at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's premier think tank on black-related issues.

"As a practical political matter, people want to hear their interests and their concerns addressed directly," Mr. Morris said.

Others are less convinced that Mr. Clinton will suddenly address black issues as president after not making any pledges to do so.

"You can't campaign like a Republican and govern like a Democrat," said Ronald Walters, chairman of the Political Science Department at Howard University and a former Jackson aide.

Mr. Walters worries that if Mr. Clinton wins by the huge majority that is being predicted, the black vote will not be seen as crucial to his win. That may lower black turnout. But it also makes Mr. Clinton even less beholden to an urban agenda, which he has not emphasized anyway.

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