DILLON, S.C.—Democrats are right to worry about the fall-out from the increasingly bitter battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—at least if conversations with African-American voters at two Obama events yesterday are anything to go by.
One might not expect anyone attending an Obama rally to come easily to Clinton’s defense. But it was striking that even audience members who were not committed Obama supporters expressed strong disapproval of the tone struck by the former First Lady and her husband recently.
Joseph Myers, a local man who watched Obama speak in a high school gymnasium in this struggling town in the north-east of the state, said he had been leaning toward John Edwards until he saw Monday’s CNN debate, replete with its rancorous Clinton-Obama exchanges.
“That swayed me” in Obama’s favor, Myers said, accusing Clinton of “trying to deflect” legitimate questions by attacking her main rival.
Myers also expressed skepticism about Bill Clinton’s record on issues affecting the African-American community.
“I like Bill but, speaking as a black man, Bill didn’t do all that much for black men,” he said.
Myers cited the former president’s role in promoting NAFTA and his support for the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ model of criminal justice as two instances where Clinton’s political stances had hurt African-Americans disproportionately.
At the same event, Roger Jordan, a 70-year-old preacher at the Vision Missionary Church in nearby Little Rock, said he had also been spurred to Obama’s defense by a feeling that he was under siege from the Clintons.
“I think Hillary has good points,” Jordan said, “but recently I see her attack Obama for no reason. What is that? If you were just walking down the street and I punched you, how would you feel about that?”
Jordan said he thought some of the attacks on Obama by Clinton surrogates had a racial component. Though not supplying specific examples, he said, “You can see it sometimes in the words that are used, sometimes even in the body language.”
The Clinton campaign has vigorously pushed back at any suggestion that it has played the race card against Obama. In its view, Hillary Clinton’s jabs have done nothing more than raise legitimate questions about the young senator’s record—a record that the Clintons believe has been viewed through rose-tinted glasses by the media.
Supporter Brenda Williams was given the role of introducing him at the earlier event in Sumter yesterday. In an interview afterwards, she said that some of the “other parties” in the contest—she declined to name names –”have tried to inject racism as a scare tactic to remind people of the Old America.”
The 56-year-old doctor added: “It is an old kind of hidden language that some of the people are using to remind America that this is a man of color. And that is something that still antagonizes some people in this country.”
Obama’s campaign may be encouraged by the notion that the Clinton attacks have served to galvanize support. They would be well-advised not to become too complacent. Last night’s rally in Dillon was, unusually, barely half-full. Obama’s lyrical, lofty rhetoric can seem incongruous in a setting where young children have room to wrestle each other on the edge of the crowd and teens can be spotted drifting away.
Obama nevertheless appeared to have shaken off the chronic tiredness that characterized some of his campaign trail performances in the days after his shock loss in New Hampshire. Hitting his usual stump speech points, he highlighted the sorry state of a local school. “Every time a train goes by the building shakes and the teachers have to stop teaching,” he said.
He drew applause when he added: “If we as a society are building new prisons and putting our kids in old schools, that tells you something about who we are.”
He had made almost exactly the same point earlier, in Sumter.
And it was at that earlier appearance that he also made a blunt comment about his religious faith—presumably in an effort to immunize himself against ongoing anonymous smears suggesting he is a secret Muslim.
“I have been a member of the same church for almost twenty years,” he said, before adding with emphasis, “Praying to Jesus. With my Bible.”