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Gore faces challenge of rallying black vote

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Get Sharon Todd and Pamela Hall talking about Bill Clinton, and the goodwill positively gushes.

At Hall's cozy West Baltimore home Friday morning, the two African-American women extolled their president as a man who cares, who understands their needs, who has done a lot for their community.

But as the conversation turned to Clinton's would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore, the passions wilted like impatiens in the afternoon sun.

"I just don't think he has the strength that Clinton has, the drive," Hall said blankly, to nods of agreement from Todd.

"The fight," added Todd, "it's just not there."

Presidential politics will be everywhere tomorrow through Wednesday as the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People continues in Baltimore.

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush speaks to the gathering tomorrow. Gore appears Wednesday, pleading with delegates to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

But the burning political question will not be so much whether black voters will cast their ballots for Bush or Gore, but whether Gore can muster the kind of passionate support among African-Americans that his boss has enjoyed to such powerful effect.

So far, that commitment seems to have eluded him.

Though black voters overwhelmingly favor Gore, a poll last month by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas found that the number of African-Americans who say they are "extremely likely" to vote in November lags behind the number of white voters by 5 percentage points.

That is a sharp turnaround from 1998, when in many pivotal states, black turnout percentages actually surpassed white turnout.

In the poll, black voter enthusiasm lagged behind that of Republicans by 9 percentage points and could not even keep up with overall Democratic enthusiasm.

"It's almost like [Gore's] got no pulse," fretted Michelle Taylor-Bradley, a black voter from the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomeryville.

"He's not strong on a lot of stands. I don't know what he believes," she said.

To be sure, Bush has made some effort to court African-American voters directly, through inner-city appearances and photo opportunities, and indirectly, through his efforts to frame himself as "a new kind of Republican."

But while the Texas governor expects to make serious inroads into the Hispanic vote, Republicans have far lower expectations from the black community.

"The party would like to get up to 15 percent from the single digits," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "That should be doable."

Though Hispanic voters have received most of the attention this year, black voters could be more important.

Some 75 percent of Latinos live in California and Texas, two states that are hardly in play this November, said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which specializes in minority voting patterns.

Texas will certainly go to Bush, while Gore is heavily favored in California.

In contrast, African-American voters - about 11 percent of the total - are spread more broadly. Concentrations of black voters appear in several battleground states, especially in the industrial Midwest. Heavy black turnout in Southern states, such as Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Arkansas, could keep that region in play as well - but only if they vote.

"If you did the polling, you'd see that African-Americans are overwhelmingly for Gore," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, "but that doesn't mean anything if they don't turn out."

In 1998, blacks in key states went to the polls in force. They turned out heavily in New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, driven in part by anger over the president's impeachment. That surge helped elect three Democratic governors and two Democratic senators.

In Maryland, a gubernatorial election that had appeared close just days before the voting turned into a comfortable re-election for Democrat Parris N. Glendening, thanks in part to a heavy turnout by black voters.

Gore campaign officials say that influx of black support resulted in large part from concerted get-out-the-vote drives, which Democrats plan to repeat this fall. That, they say, is when the passion will be stoked.

"Those things don't happen by accident," a Gore campaign aide said.

Indeed, the NAACP has vowed to get 4 million African-Americans to the polls in November.

Still, the question remains whether November 2000 will be like 1998, or like 1988, when black voting was particularly low and Bush's father was elected president, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"African-Americans didn't come out in '88 because they didn't see Mike Dukakis as much of a friend, and they didn't see George Bush as much of an enemy," Gans said. "And I don't think they'll see this George Bush as much of an enemy either."

Gore has been trying mightily to make lots of friends. Last week at the African Methodist Episcopal Church general conference in Cincinnati, the vice president brought 5,000 delegates to their feet as he pledged to support affirmative action, end "racial profiling" by police and push for tougher federal hate-crimes laws.

In contrast, Bush has avoided tailoring proposals to appeal to different ethnic groups, hoping his general themes of moral uplift, educational improvement and tax cuts will appeal to all voters, said Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan.

Sullivan may be right, to a point.

Viola Green, 38, an African-American from Cayce, S.C., said last week she was attracted to Bush's positions on moral issues - and turned off by Gore's "spiritual point of view."

"A lot of spiritual values have been stolen from us," Green lamented. "We can't even have prayer in school."

So far, Bush's appeal to African-Americans has been limited, though it has been better than that of Republican presidential candidates in the recent past. The Lake-Goeas poll last month found Gore leading among black voters 81 percent to 15 percent.

When African-Americans were asked if they would vote for a Republican or Democrat in the fall, only 2 percent said a Republican. When asked whether they would vote for Bush or Gore, GOP support jumped more than seven-fold.

Gore is "hardly noticeable," said Ron Bradley, 40, a director of operations for PECO Energy in Philadelphia. "He's going to have a hard time getting elected, because he's such a normal, no-impact guy."

The contrast with Clinton is not helping. The president had a way of connecting to black voters, through personal appeals in intimate settings or through anecdotes that spoke to the black experience, Cummings said.

"The feeling is not as deep for Gore as it is for Clinton," he said. "People don't feel the sincerity."

To mobilize black voters, Gore's campaign may have to focus on the other side of Gans' equation: making Bush the enemy.

Black voters "don't have a clear impression of Bush's negatives," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat and an African-American, "but they will."

Wynn suggested that Gore should be relying more heavily on surrogates to remind black voters of Bush's trip to Bob Jones University, which until recently forbade interracial dating, and of Bush's refusal to take a position on the Confederate flag that flew above the South Carolina Statehouse until earlier this month. Bush's record on the death penalty and his opposition to hate-crime legislation could also make him vulnerable.

Those surrogates, of course, should be heavily African-American, Wynn said, but as the election approaches, Gore should not hesitate to unleash the most powerful surrogate of them all: Bill Clinton.

Just as the 1998 African-American vote was about the president - though Clinton did not appear on any ballot - the 2000 election could be about him, too, if the president personally appeals to black voters to keep his legacy alive, Cummings said.

"In the African-American community, Clinton can make this vote about him," he said.

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