WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama opened his 2008 drive for the White House with a promise to bridge historic political divides, but so far it is unclear how many black voters will come along for the ride.
Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, has promised to wage “a different kind of politics” in a run for the White House that could shatter U.S. racial barriers and make him the first black president.
But polls show he lags well behind Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York among black voters, the most loyal Democratic voting bloc, and his candidacy has been greeted cautiously by some veteran black leaders uncertain about his experience and views.
The wary approach is not surprising given Obama is a relative newcomer on the national stage and, unlike many established black leaders, did not build his reputation during the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s, analysts said.
“People don’t know who he is. Outside of Illinois, black voters and everybody else are asking, ‘Who is this guy?’” said Ron Walters, a former adviser to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and head of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.
“They don’t know his record, they don’t know his background or where he came from, so they are asking very understandable questions,” he said. “He has to win their vote like anyone else.”
Obama, the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, has quickly become a leading contender for the heavily contested Democratic nomination, along with Clinton and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
He is to formally launch his campaign on Saturday at the old state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, where the man who freed the slaves as president, Abraham Lincoln, delivered a famous 1858 “House Divided” speech decrying the country’s divisions over slavery.
But Obama’s status as the first black presidential contender considered to have a real shot at winning the White House has not translated into automatic black support.
Jackson, a veteran of losing Democratic presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, has not endorsed Obama. Neither has the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 who has not ruled out another run.
Polls show Clinton is favored by a majority of black voters, with Obama a distant second. Clinton, whose husband President Bill Clinton is popular with black voters, receives much higher favorable ratings from blacks than Obama.
Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, also is making a concerted pitch for black support and launched his campaign in December from a poor, primarily black New Orleans neighborhood ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“Black voters have choices now, they have Hillary Clinton and John Edwards,” Walters said. “And this time there is a context in this election that might be even more persuasive than race, and that’s the war.”
Polls show blacks oppose the Iraq war at higher percentages than white voters, making Obama’s early opposition to the war a potential selling point. Clinton, attacked by some Democrats for voting to authorize the war and being too slow to renounce her vote, has stepped up her criticism of the conflict.
Black voters constitute about 10 percent of the U.S. electorate, and they often make up more than 40 percent of the Democratic primary vote in key Southern states like South Carolina, the fourth state to cast ballots in the 2008 Democratic nomination race.
David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which researches issues affecting blacks, said Obama has plenty of time to win over black voters.
His first and bigger task, he said, will be winning white votes in the heavily white early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as gaining support from Hispanics in Nevada, the second state to vote in the Democratic race.
“Black voters are looking for a candidate who is capable of winning the general election, and ultimately how Obama is viewed by black voters will depend on his prospects,” Bositis said.
“If he comes out of those early primaries looking like he could win it all and be elected president, he will get a substantial boost in black support,” he said.