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Racial Attitudes Pose Challenge for Obama

By Associated Press


Joyce Susick is the type of voter who might carry Barack Obama to the White House or keep him out. A registered Democrat in a highly competitive state, she is eager to replace George W. Bush, whom she ranks among the worst presidents ever.

There’s just one problem.

“I don’t think our country is ready for a Black president,” Susick, who is White, said in an interview in the paint store where she works. “A Black man is never going to win Pennsylvania.”

Susick said her personal objection to Obama is his inexperience, not his color. “It has nothing to do with race,” she said.

If Susick is right about Pennsylvania voters, it presents a major hurdle for the presumed Democratic nominee. Democrats have carried Pennsylvania in the last four presidential contests, and Obama would have to offset a loss of its 21 electoral votes by taking Republican-leaning states from John McCain.

Polls suggest that Susick, a grandmother of three, does not represent most registered Democrats here or elsewhere. But there may be enough like-minded voters in Pennsylvania, whose last two presidential elections have been close, to tip it to McCain.

In the April 22 primary, Susick voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who carried Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points. Perhaps more troubling for Obama, one in four Clinton’s backers told exit pollsters they would vote for McCain if Obama were the nominee; an additional 17 percent said they would not vote at all.

Obama has time and money to court these voters. Polls indicate some can be swayed. But the first-term senator is wading into unknown waters. Political scientists have reams of data about past elections, but there has been no test of how many voters make their ultimate decision based on race.

The answer may determine the presidency. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida, with large numbers of White, working-class voters, could prove problematic for a Black man even in a year that otherwise looks grim for GOP candidates.

Gauging voter sentiments about race is notoriously difficult. Many voters hide their feelings from pollsters and it is possible that some do not even realize race’s influence on their behavior.

In interviews with 40 Pennsylvanians across three counties that Clinton won by big margins, only one person indicated opposition to Obama simply because of his race. But several others said their neighbors might do so. Some offered objections that are familiar, and suspicious, to Obama’s aides and supporters.

A few, like Susick, suggested the nation needs more time to prepare for a Black president and perhaps a woman as well.

“I don’t think we’re ready for either one yet,” said Doug Richardson, 62, a contractor from Latrobe. Obama “just hasn’t impressed me,” he said over midmorning coffee with a friend at Denny’s. “His middle name bothers me a lot.” That name is Hussein.

Obama may have little to lose with voters such as Richardson, a self-described conservative who likes McCain. More worrisome are longtime Democrats who backed Clinton in April but are threatening to abandon the party now that she is not the nominee.

Rose Iezzi, who lunched recently with two friends at a Greensburg cafe, is one. All three women are middle-aged, work for an accountant and admire Clinton. But only Iezzi took a hard stand against Obama.

“I think he’s a snake oil salesman,” she said. “He’s a little too slick and smooth.”

“He just doesn’t appeal to me, and not because of race, definitely,” she said in an interview in which race had not been mentioned.

Such comments are all too familiar to Richard Akers, who phoned dozens of prospective Pennsylvania voters as an Obama campaign volunteer in April. Democrats often explained their opposition to Obama with “excuses that were not rational or valid, as I saw it,” said the retired bank director from Johnstown, another hotbed of Clinton support.

“To me, it was almost a code,” Akers said. “‘He doesn’t wear a flag pin.’ It seemed like code for ‘He’s not one of us.’”

In Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, some people hardly hide their prejudices.

Robert Miller, 72, who lives in a government subsidized room in Bedford, said the Constitution should be amended so it will “not let any colored people run for the White House.” He seemed unsure about his voting record in recent elections, but vividly recalled voting for Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

Dixie Pebley of Johnstown, 71, explained her distaste for Obama, saying, “Black doesn’t bother me, but Muslim does.” When reminded that Obama is a Christian, she conceded the point, but added: “He was born Muslim and raised Muslim, that’s enough for me. He just scares me to death.”

Obama, the son of a White mother from Kansas and Black father from Kenya, was born and raised in a mostly secular family that occasionally attended Christian services. He joined the United Church of Christ as a young adult.

Obama has little to fear from Pebley, who said she no longer votes because she is disillusioned with politicians. But even some likely voters who are largely sympathetic to him are troubled by his ties, now broken, to a former pastor who cursed the United States and accused the government of possible conspiracies against Blacks.

Kate Tanning, a Pittsburgh antiques dealer who was lunching with friends in Bedford, rejected Obama’s claim that he did not know of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s most bombastic statements even though Obama attended Wright’s Chicago church for 20 years.

“That’s the one thing about him I can’t believe,” she said.

Obama generally avoids direct racial appeals, and he is likely to pursue such voters with familiar arguments: His opposition to the Iraq war and appeals for national unity and bipartisanship, for example. He may be making progress. National polls show him leading McCain among female voters and running even among Catholics, two groups that generally backed Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

But national polls are less important than those in the roughly 15 highly competitive states in which both parties will focus their efforts. These are all big states full of White, working-class voters who were Clinton’s base, and include Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Obama will count on voters such as Iezzi’s lunchmates, Susan Szymanski and Roxane Uhrin. Both said they strongly preferred Clinton, but will vote for Obama this fall in hopes of changing policies on the economy and Iraq.

“I don’t want a third term of George Bush,” Szymanski said.

James Antoniono, a Greensburg lawyer and veteran Democratic activist who worked for Clinton, said many Clinton backers will support Obama this fall, including some who told exit pollsters they would not.

“It’s one thing to come out of the voting booth and say that,” Antoniono said. “It’s another thing when you’re faced with a choice in the general election.”

Still, he said, Obama and his aides face tough battles. “There’s no way they win Ohio, in my mind,” he said in his law office, which faces Westmoreland County’s elegant old courthouse. “I think Pennsylvania is winnable,” he said. But he predicted Obama will “lose Westmoreland big,” even though registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the county, which is east of Pittsburgh.

At least one Obama fan thinks the impact of racial prejudice may be limited.

Rick Weimer, a retired Coca-Cola truck driver who was eating a Chinese dish at a mall food court in Johnstown, said analysts are “pretty accurate” in describing Pennsylvania as Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west “and Alabama in between.” Obama’s race “will hurt him” in many places, said Weimer, who follows the campaign intensely on cable TV.” But when push comes to shove, people around here want change.”

That might include some White Democrats who publicly criticize Obama just to fit in with their neighbors, he said. “Once they go into the voting booth,” he said, “who knows?”

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