S.C. Democratic primary
COLUMBIA -- Sharp criticism of Barack Obama and other comments about Martin Luther King Jr. all from people associated with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign have generated resentment among some black S.C. voters.
The furor comes just two weeks before those voters will have a significant say in who wins the Jan. 26 primary here.
The Clinton-Obama battle has the potential to become a wrenching divide for black voters. Historically those voters have been strong backers of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But many black voters now are drawn to the prospect of a black man winning the presidency.
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Those on both sides say watching the battle unfold in the Palmetto State, where black voters could cast half of the votes in the Democratic primary, won't be pretty.
"To some of us, it is painful," said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Clinton supporter.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., had pledged to remain neutral as Democrats competed for votes in the state's primary.
But the state's only African-American congressman was quoted in The New York Times on -Friday saying he is reconsidering that stance in light of comments from Clinton.
She raised eyebrows in New Hampshire when she credited President Lyndon Baines Johnson, not the assassinated John F. Kennedy or King, for passing civil rights legislation.
"It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone's motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those," Clyburn told the Times. "That bothered me a great deal."
Efforts to reach Clyburn, leading a congressional delegation examining Asian port security, were not successful Friday.
Clyburn's office issued a statement Friday night that lacked the fire of his Times interview.
"I encourage the candidates to be sensitive about the words they use," Clyburn said in the statement. "This is an historic race for America to have such strong, diverse candidates vying for the Democratic nomination."
Clinton expanded on her comments during a Jan. 8 interview on NBC's "Today" show.
"Sen. Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me," she said. "Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn't change anything."
A generational divide has opened among black S.C. political leaders that matches a key difference between Clinton and Obama.
Older, more experienced black elected officials, including Jackson and state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, back Clinton. Younger politicians including Steve Benjamin and Rick Wade, who both made high-profile runs for statewide office, and state Reps. Bakari Sellers and Todd Rutherford support Obama.
Rutherford bristles at the notion, offered up by some of Clinton's supporters, that it is foolish to back a relatively young black man for an office that no black ever has held.
"If they are going to call themselves black leaders, and people are running by them to vote for Obama and they are standing there and pointing in the other direction, then maybe they need to be replaced," Rutherford said.
Obama has gotten under the skin of the Clintons by painting Hillary Clinton as a calculating politician whose election would take the country back to the bitterly partisan years of the 1990s.
The Clinton team mostly ignored Obama's digs in the early months of the campaign. But, as Obama moved closer to what became a resounding victory in the Iowa caucuses, Clinton and her supporters began to attack Obama.
A prominent Clinton supporter in New Hampshire said Democrats should think twice about nominating Obama because Republicans would revive his past drug use in this fall's general election campaign.
Clinton quickly disassociated herself from the comments. But they were widely seen as a clumsy attempt by her campaign to remind voters about Obama's previous drug use.
After Obama won in Iowa and Hillary Clinton's path to the nomination seemed threatened, Bill Clinton came to his wife's defense. He argued Obama's rise had come without an appropriate level of scrutiny from members of the news media.
"This thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," the former president said.
Bill Clinton kept up the criticism, telling New Hampshire voters not to make the same decision Iowans had in supporting Obama.
"The voters there said, 'We want something different. We want something that looks good and sounds good. We don't care about achievement.'"
Obama supporters were outraged by the criticism.
"We expect a lot of Barack Obama," Benjamin said. "We expect as much from Hillary Clinton. And we probably expect more from Bill Clinton."
Jackson said it is fair to draw sharp comparisons between Clinton, who was first lady for eight years before becoming a U.S. senator, and Obama, who served in the Illinois state legislature before winning his Senate seat.
He said the Clintons, particularly the former president, have earned the right to be critical of Obama without having to worry about being seen as racists.
"We're not talking about David Duke saying these things," Jackson said. "Here's a guy who was affectionately called the first black president."
African-Americans liked what they knew of Obama in the early months of the campaign, Cox said. But they wondered if white voters would support him. Now, after Iowa, some of those doubts are gone, and many black voters have come to see Obama as their best chance to have one of their own capture the White House.
Anyone who tries to get in the way of that, particularly anyone who is not black, will spark some anger, Cox said.
"The racial dynamic is always going to be there," Cox said. "If you have a white female candidate attacking a black candidate, it might look racial. I think that would hurt (Hillary Clinton)."
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