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A Deep-Seated Fear Leads to Questions in S.C.

By Alec MacGillis
ROCK HILL, S.C. -- A strong undercurrent in the Democratic primary in South Carolina has been the shift in perspective among the state's African American voters -- about half the Democratic electorate -- on the question of whether Barack Obama could actually be elected president. Months ago, many voters doubted that prospect and so were wary of getting excited about his campaign, but his victory in the Iowa caucuses seems to have put that to rest for some.

Today, though, the question was made explicit, with a twist. At a town hall forum at Winthrop University here, Rita Moore-Johnson, a lab technician, rose to ask Obama a question that she said her 77-year-old father had put to her. He didn't doubt whether Obama could really get elected, but whether he'd be able to accomplish what he wanted to in office. "He feels that an African-American candidate won't be able to do what he needs to do in Washington to get change done." What, Moore-Johnson asked, could Obama say to change his mind?

Obama began by citing his success getting elected to the Senate from Illinois, a state that is 12 percent black, close to the national average. But then he went into a broader response that drew applause from his racially mixed audience.

"I am absolutely convinced that the American people right now, they don't care whether your are black white, brown or green," he said. "What they care about is are you going to help us, get our country on track. If I came to you and I had polka dots, but you were convinced that I was going to put more money in your pockets and help you pay for college and keep America safe, you'd say, 'Okay, I wish he didn't have polka dots, but I'm still voting for him.'"

Afterward, Moore-Johnson said she was satisfied with Obama's answer but was not sure whether it would be enough to get her father over the hump. She said that the prospect of an African American president was simply hard to fathom for her father, a retired security guard whose grandfather was born into slavery.

"I don't know if [Obama's answer] is going to change him or not," she said. "He's just afraid that a black president could not be taken seriously in D.C."

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 23, 2008; 12:39 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama  
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