WASHINGTON (Reuters) - African Americans liked Bill Clinton so much that he was once dubbed “the first black president,” but perceptions that his wife’s campaigning has been racially tinged have taken a toll on Hillary Clinton’s White House bid.
Some accuse Clinton’s campaign of trying to cast her rival Barack Obama as a candidate of limited appeal in order to marginalize his candidacy and enhance her chances of winning the Democratic Party nomination.
Obama would be the first black president if he won the nomination and then defeated Republican John McCain in the Nov. 4 national election. Obama, a senator from Illinois, is leading Sen. Clinton of New York in the fight for delegates to the August convention.
Clinton would be the first woman president. But some black Americans have grown mistrustful of her campaign because of statements by her, her husband and other surrogates. African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Her suggestion of a “dream” ticket with Obama as her vice presidential running mate reminded some of the days when blacks, regarded as second-class citizens, were ordered to sit at the back of buses.
“No offense, but that is typical of a white person to offer you second place and say they’ll take first place,” trucker Jasper Clark, 53, said at a recent Obama rally in Jackson, Mississippi.
The mere mention of Clinton’s name drew boos from that mostly black audience.
Obama discusses his life as the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya to highlight his message that the United States can move beyond racial divisions, but the issue keeps bubbling up.
Last week, the Clinton and Obama camps traded barbs over a flap involving Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro, who became a trailblazer for women when she joined the unsuccessful Democratic ticket as a vice presidential candidate in 1984.
In comments some viewed as racially divisive, Ferraro attributed Obama’s lead so far in this year’s Democratic race to his being black. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she said.
Ferraro later resigned from her role on Clinton’s fundraising committee and Clinton said she repudiated and “deeply” regretted her supporter’s comments.
The Clinton campaign accused the Obama campaign of drawing the race issue into the campaign by calling attention to Ferraro’s remarks.
Some analysts said the Ferraro remarks could provoke resentment from some white Americans over “affirmative action” policies aimed at helping minorities overcome discrimination.
Many U.S. blacks say such resentment often causes their accomplishments to be overlooked.
“It’s the idea that a black person with a Harvard law degree and a distinguished legislative career only got to where he is because of his skin color. That’s surreal,” said William Jelani Cobb, a history professor at Spelman College in Atlanta.
“It is comparable to the same tiresome argument that accomplished black professionals often hear: ‘He or she only got that job because of affirmative action,’” said Patricia Gunn, a law professor at Ohio University, who supports Obama.
In polls, Clinton had been splitting black support with Obama as recently as late last year.
But many took offense when Bill Clinton compared Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary in January to success there by Jesse Jackson, an African American who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, but attracted little support on the national stage. Some said Bill Clinton’s comments were a bid to marginalize Obama as a candidate only of black America.
Clinton said last week she was sorry for the flap. “You know, I was sorry if anyone was offended. It was certainly not meant in any way to be offensive,” she said.
Bill Clinton said “there is a total myth” that the Clinton campaign played the race card. “We had some played against us but we didn’t play any,” he told CNN.
In South Carolina, eight in 10 black voters supported Obama. That margin increased to more than nine in 10 in the primary last week in Mississippi.
Bill Clinton said he wasn’t surprised by Obama’s overwhelming support among blacks. “No, that was going to happen. Once African Americans understood that they had a candidate that had a serious chance of winning the nomination and of winning the presidency,” he said.
Obama supporters, who hope his message of transcending racial divisions can have broad appeal, have emphasized that his wins have come not only in states like Mississippi with large black populations, but also in mostly white states like Iowa, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Idaho.
Obama faces a controversy of his own over racially charged and inflammatory rhetoric by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor at his church in Chicago. Comments such as Wright’s contention that the United States believes in “white supremacy and black inferiority” put Obama on the defensive. He has attended Wright’s church for 20 years.
Obama said he rejected the “incendiary” comments by Wright, who resigned from his role as spiritual adviser to the Obama campaign. Obama plans to give a speech on race in Philadelphia on Tuesday in which he will discuss Wright as well as the broader issue of race in the campaign.
Additional reporting by Andy Stern
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