Obama spurs talk on race

The Baltimore Sun

At the Harlem Blues barbershop on Erdman Avenue, talk turned yesterday morning from the usual hot topic - women - to one the men there never imagined they'd be discussing: the stunning success of a black presidential candidate.

"I couldn't believe he won Iowa," said Hilbert M. Hebron Jr., as he swiveled in the barber chair to face his audience of five waiting customers. "They're saying if he won in Iowa, he might have a chance to win it all. Can you believe that?"

The men in the shop rarely agree on much. But they were all surprised yesterday at the resounding win by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Not only had Obama won the first major challenge for Democratic presidential hopefuls, the Iowa caucuses, defeating New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but he had won in a state that is just 2 percent black.

Obama's victory, prevailing across racial and economic lines, has raised hopes among many blacks that an African-American candidate can capture the Democratic Party nomination - and perhaps the White House.

"I didn't think he had a chance to win it," said Alan Bosworth, 19, a political science student at Frostburg State University, catching a haircut at the Northeast Baltimore barbershop while on winter break. "Especially in Iowa. When you look at it, it's mostly white. You don't see any black people.

"Racism still exists, but you look at that and see things are changing. That's a good thing."

A spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - which is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates - said it was too early to say if Obama's win in Iowa will lead to the nomination.

"Obviously he's generated much support and generated a lot of excitement," said Richard J. McIntire, national spokesman for the NAACP. "But there's still a long way to go. A lot can happen between now and November."

Clinton has lined up the support of many of Maryland's elected Democrats, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, and Lt. Gov. Anthony M. Brown, who is black and attended law school with Obama. Brown - who had no comment on the Iowa contest, a spokeswoman said - is scheduled to campaign in New Hampshire on Monday.

But those who have been backing Obama - including Prince George's County Sen. Ulysses Currie, who is black, and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who is white - see an opportunity to make history and bring people together.

While the primary season is early and Obama faces formidable competition, he hopes to succeed where other black major-party presidential candidates have fallen short.

In 1984, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson captured 3.5 million votes and won primaries in Louisiana and the District of Columbia during his first bid for the presidency. Four years later, he collected twice as many votes in winning 13 primaries and caucuses. He finished second to the ultimate Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis. Jackson also mounted major voter registration drives in both years.

Jackson's campaigns came more than a decade after then-New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination; she dropped out after collecting 152 delegates in 1972. Four years ago, the Rev. Al Sharpton made an impression in the debates but received only 27 delegates in his Democratic presidential bid.

On the Republican side, former diplomat Alan L. Keyes unsuccessfully ran in 1996 and 2000 and is making a largely unnoticed bid this year.

Yesterday, all the current presidential hopefuls took their messages to New Hampshire, where a hoarse Obama told supporters at a rally he was in high spirits because "last night the American people began down the road to change."

Reached on his cell phone yesterday on his way home from Iowa, Gansler said Obama "really inspired a whole new group of people to come out." He noted that out of 180 people who came to a caucus in West Des Moines Thursday night, 70 registered at the door. "And many were changing parties just for the opportunity to vote for Barack Obama," he added.

Gansler said voters - many of whom were young - responded to the freshman senator's desire to run a campaign based on issues and change, not race.

"He's not someone who runs as an African-American," said Gansler, co-chairman of Obama's Maryland campaign. "He's saying he's the most qualified, most-experienced person to run, and he just happens to be African-American."

University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, who held senior roles in Jackson's two campaigns, said that Obama's win in Iowa actually says little about racial politics in this country.

"I think this doesn't say very much about race," Walters said. "What his campaign tried to do was to neutralize the issue of race so that white voters wouldn't see race in him. ... That gave him an advantage."

But other black elected officials disagreed.

Currie, who grew up in segregated North Carolina and is now chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, called Obama's victory "the most significant political event that has ever happened in this country."

"If you have an African-American elected in a state where something like 90 percent of the people are white, that is history-making in this country," Currie said.

Calling from South Carolina where he was campaigning for Obama, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings said Obama's nine-point margin of victory over Hillary Clinton - a landslide in politics, he said - has energized other African-Americans.

"One of the things that he [Obama] said to me a while back, about three months ago, was that his biggest enemies are those people who like him but believe that he cannot win," said Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who co-chairs Obama's campaign here. "Now what I've seen here on the ground in South Carolina, and some other places that I've been, is that when people found out that he had won, even some of those people who were reluctant to support him in the past, are now saying they will definitely be supporting him. People like to be with a winner."

At the Harlem Blues barbershop in Baltimore, customers came and went as the conversation about Obama's historic Iowa win heated up, subsided and heated up again. Speculation swirled. Conspiracy theories were tossed out - and fears were expressed about his security. Obama's laundry list of things to do - once elected - was painstakingly spelled out.

If the barbershop is any indication, Obama will bring out many typical nonvoters on Feb. 12, when Maryland holds its presidential primary.

"I'm 37 years old and I don't vote for nobody," Hebron, a real estate agent, said. "But I will vote for him."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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