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Rock Solid Support For Obama, But Will the Black Vote Follow?

Comedian Chris Rock introducing Barack Obama at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. (Getty Images).

Barack Obama stepped onto the Clintons' turf in the fight for the black vote last night, appearing at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, near the office President Clinton has worked in since he left the Oval Office.

Obama didn't speak much about the Clintons, but comedian Chris Rock did.

He told the audience they'd be "real embarrassed" if Obama won and they had been backing Clinton instead.

"You'd say, 'I had that white lady! What was I thinking," he said, according to the Associated Press.

Obama's Harlem fundraiser came in a week in which Hillary Clinton picked up the endorsements of a group of black ministers in South Carolina, while Oprah Winfrey announced she would campaign for Obama. And the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who had his own historic presidential run two decades ago, blasted the Democratic candidates for not focusing on the issues of Africans Americans, a rebuke that undoubtedly referred to both Obama, whom Jackson has praised in the past, and Hillary Clinton, whose husband Jackson has previously supported.

Obama and Clinton are courting influential African Americans, anticipating what could be a pivotal primary in South Carolina in January, where blacks make up roughly half the population. But the most important voices in swaying the black vote are likely to be white: the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Polls this year have shown black voters have serious doubts that America will elect an African American president, which gives them another push toward a candidate whom they already like, Clinton. The former first lady leads in polls in South Carolina, but a win by Obama in one or two of the early votes would give him momentum and directly address the electability question.

Obama's campaign has run ads on gospel radio stations in South Carolina, and he's given speeches at events in the state that clearly evoke the racial significance of his candidacy. It's not something that's a big emphasis in Iowa and New Hampshire, both states with black populations of less than three percent. But in Berlin, New Hampshire earlier this week, he was asked about his views on race relations from a person who noted "I know it doesn't seem appropriate in the whitest place on earth to ask a question."

"I'm not interested in having these conversations about race sort of in the abstract," he said, according to the New York Observer. "When everyone is sort of self-flagellating and saying well are we racist or do we still have discrimination in our society? I don't find those useful. Often times African Americans will get all riled up, a lot of African-Americans will get defensive. It doesn't produce anything. What I want to find is concrete plans for change. And most of the problems that affect African Americans affect everybody."

He said of himself "I'm an African American, but I am somebody, like many African Americans, who has all kinds of stuff in him...You should have seen Thanksgiving, we were like the United Nations...But I self-identify as an African American. That's how I am treated and that's how I am viewed and I'm proud of it."

Iowa voters will soon hear more the racial views of not only Obama, but also the other Democratic candidates, who are attending a forum on minority issues in Des Moines on Saturday.

--Perry Bacon Jr.

By Washington Post editors  |  November 30, 2007; 10:40 AM ET
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