Will Americans elect a black president?
Issue of Obama’s race has grown to become dominant theme in election.
ARE Americans ready for a black president?
Democratic Senator Barack Obama has rejected suggestions that colour prejudice could prevent him from becoming the first African American to win the US presidency in November.
But others are not so sure in the wake of recent primary contests where he has not been able to win over working-class white voters who are staunch supporters of his rival Hillary Clinton.
The issue of Mr Obama’s race and whether it makes him unelectable has now grown from the occasional question to become a dominant theme in this election.
Democratic elders, and the all-important super delegates who will likely decide the nominee, are watching the tightly contested race to see whether American racial bias would hurt their chances of taking the White House from the Republicans if the contest were to pit the black Mr Obama against a white senator, the Republicans’ John McCain.
Mr Obama confronted the issue head-on during an interview on Sunday with Fox News: “Is race still a factor in our society? Yes. I don’t think anybody would deny that. Is that going to be the determining factor in a general election?
“I am confident that when you come to a general election, and we are having a debate about the future of this country – how we are going to lower gas prices…how we are going to focus on energy independence – that those are voters who I will be able to appeal to.
“If I lose, it won’t be because of race. It will be because…I made mistakes on the campaign trail. I wasn’t communicating effectively my plans in terms of helping them in their everyday lives.”
Mr Obama is leading the former first lady in the popular votes, states won and pledged delegates to the Democratic Party convention in August.
But Mrs Clinton’s recent victories in the key swing states of Pennsylvania and Ohio have raised doubts about his ability to win white voters – and contest a national election.
In the Pennsylvania primary, for example, Mrs Clinton captured 63 per cent of the white vote. Mr Obama got 90 per cent of the much smaller black vote, mirroring a racially polarised pattern found in other states.
What is particularly worrying for the Democratic leadership is that the white, blue-collar voters who favour Mrs Clinton hold the balance of power in the big industrial states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, which the Democrats simply have to win in November in order to take the White House.
In the Pennsylvania exit polls, 16 per cent of white voters said that race had an influence on their decision and almost half of that lot indicated that they would not back Mr Obama in the general election.
There is also a flip side to the increasing racial polarisation in Democratic voting patterns: Should Mrs Clinton win the nomination, some Democrats said, there is a risk that she would be unable to mobilise black voters to support her if she won the nomination in a way that was viewed by black voters as being unfair.
Mr Obama is clearly aware of how race could derail his presidential ambitions.
He is making changes to his campaign style and message to win over the white working class. In Indiana, which is next up for grabs on May 6, he visited a Methodist church, suited up for a basketball game and took part in smaller town hall meetings.
“I’ve got to be more present,” he said on Sunday. “I’ve got to be knocking on more doors. I’ve got to be hitting more events. We’ve got to work harder because although it’s flipped a little bit, we’ve always been the underdog in this race.”
But just as he seeks to appeal to white, blue-collar voters critical to his White House bid, a public relations blitz by his former pastor is damaging his chances by keeping the race issue alive.
Speaking in Detroit, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright said on Sunday that critics portraying him as “divisive” and “bombastic” misunderstood the black church, representing a tradition of intolerance in America.
Mr Obama has distanced himself from Rev Wright and denounced some of his views. He conceded that the comments were causing him political problems.
“I think that people were legitimately offended by some of the comments that he had made in the past,” he said. “The fact that he’s my former pastor I think makes it a legitimate political issue.”
The Pennsylvania race has also highlighted the growing hostility in the Obama-Clinton contest.
Seventeen per cent of the state’s voters said they either will not vote in the general election if Mrs Clinton gets the nomination or will vote for Mr McCain; 25 per cent said that they will do likewise if Mr Obama is the Democrat nominee.
“I think that people were legitimately offended by some of the comments that he had made in the past. The fact that he’s my former pastor I think makes it a legitimate political issue.”
MR OBAMA, on the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (right)