With polls showing Barack Obama winning less than half of the African-American vote in trial matchups with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, the question is: Can the Illinois senator start pulling the kind of black support he needs in order to win?
Obama needs to carry the African-American vote overwhelmingly, while Hillary just has to hold her own to blunt the edge of Obama's challenge. As one New York black political leader put it, "Obama needs 85 percent of the black vote. But Hillary only needs 35 percent."
Early primary state South Carolina, where blacks cast more than a third of the vote, looms large. If Obama can't produce big African-American majorities there, his overall ability to win the black vote will be in doubt - leaving him without any obvious base, and in free fall.
Black political observers seem to agree that Obama won't win the automatic support of African-American voters. To get black votes, he must fight for them.
Bill Clinton's popularity among African-Americans runs far too deep - and Hillary is vigorously battling. Her blatant purchase of the support of South Carolina state Sen. Darrell Jackson for $200,000 demonstrates the lengths to which she will go to win enough of the African-American vote to embarrass and perhaps derail Obama.
Another angle to the Barack vs. Hillary battle is New York vs. Chicago - with Big Apple African-American leaders like Rep. Charlie Rangel lining up for Clinton and most Chicago black pols backing their hometown guy, Obama.
But in his zeal to paint himself as the vanguard of a new generation of African-American leaders, Obama may be alienating the existing leadership. As he tries to attract whites, Obama is being questioned in the black community. In moving to assuage the fears of whites, Obama may be distancing himself from his base.
Rev. Jesse Jackson will likely still be helpful, if only to make sure that his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) isn't frozen out of hometown politics. But Obama antagonized Chicago black leaders by backing Mayor Richard Daley for re-election, rather than supporting Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown, an African-American.
In New York, the Rev. Al Sharpton's refusal to follow Rangel in backing Hillary may be emblematic of his willingness to defy the black political machine. But Obama hasn't gone to see Sharpton; he seems to be shying away from an identification with the maverick civil-rights leader that could antagonize white voters.
A lack of black enthusiasm could also damage Obama if he fails to win the nomination and wants the No. 2 spot.
Which he should: The job would give him extra experience and give America four or eight years to get used to a black vice president. He'd emerge as the prohibitive favorite for the nomination in 2012 if Hillary loses this year and in 2016 if she wins.
But Obama will need the organized, vocal support of national black leaders if he's to bargain effectively for the veep spot. Right now, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is probably the frontrunner for the slot. A Clinton administration alum, he's closer to Hillary than is Obama - and attractive to his fellow Latinos.
But if Hillary defeats Obama and African-American leaders demand that he join the ticket to assuage the hard feelings, Sen. Clinton may have no choice but to oblige. The question is: Will the traditional black leadership go to bat for Barack - or is he turning them off by turning away?
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