Saturday, March 03, 2007

Obama laughs off 'politics of destruction'

By Alex Massie for

The battle for the hearts, minds and votes of America's black voters begins in earnest this morning in Selma, Alabama, where Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will remember and salute the civil rights movement, giving simultaneous speeches at two churches no more than 300 yards apart.

But the campaign for the Democratic nomination for president is already becoming unseemly as each of the leading candidates accuses the other of playing dirty.

The Clinton campaign demanded that Obama disavow Hollywood billionaire David Geffen, who is raising money for the senator, after he complained that although "everybody in politics lies", the Clintons "do it with such ease, it's troubling".

This, Clinton complained, was "the politics of personal destruction", prompting Obama to note that the Clintons had no problem with Geffen when he raised money for them.

Obama laughed off the suggestion that he return Geffen's money, thus demonstrating for the first time that he was prepared to play hard ball with the Clintons.

Last week rumours swept through Washington suggesting that James Carville, a former strategist for Bill Clinton, was deliberately talking up the prospect of an Al Gore candidacy to deflect attention away from Obama and quieten the buzz surrounding the Illinois senator.

African-American voters are a vital and reliable Democratic constituency whose support Clinton had counted on as part of a smooth accession to the party's presidential nomination.

Obama's declaration that he would seek the presidency himself, after serving just two years in the Senate, changed that calculation.

Actor George Clooney told Newsweek magazine that Obama had the ability to offer a vision for America that was reminiscent of the Kennedys. Obama, Clooney said, is "as good as Bobby late in his career and Jack from early on".

Obama has attracted extraordinary crowds - unprecedented in recent American political history - wherever he has travelled since announcing his candidacy: in Austin, Texas, last month more than 20,000 spectators came to see him speak. If Clinton is a celebrity, Obama is a rock star.

As recently as January, a Washington Post poll found that Clinton had the support of 60% of black Democratic voters compared with just 20% for Obama. The Illinois senator's star power and impact on the race have been startling, however, and a new poll this week gave Obama an 11-point lead among black voters as his share of their vote has increased to 44%, while Clinton's has been almost halved to 33%.

This is a troubling development for a Clinton campaign that had planned on steamrolling all her rivals by suggesting that opposition to the Clinton machine was futile since her triumph was "inevitable".

Obama's rise utterly contradicts that proposition, ensuring that the contest for the party's nomination will be long, bitter and expensive.

Clinton's hopes of emulating George W Bush's 2000 campaign, which also relied on the "inevitability" strategy, have not survived the winter.

Although Clinton still leads among all Democratic voters, her lead has been halved from 24% to 12% in just a few weeks. Momentum is on Obama's side.

Although he has been on the national stage for a matter of just a few months, 70% of black voters already have a favourable impression of Obama.

The suggestion, happily spread by Clinton surrogates and supporters, that Obama "is not black enough" has failed to catch fire despite the best efforts of black activists such as Al Sharpton. That theory rested on the fact that since Obama's mother is white and his father was from Kenya, the senator's background is scarcely typical of the American black experience.

And last night it emerged Obama's ancestors - albeit many generations distant - may have owned slaves. An amateur genealogical researcher traced Obama's great-great-great-great-grandfather and discovered he owned two slaves in Kentucky, according to reports.

Undeterred, Obama will be the keynote speaker this morning at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, where civil rights activists gathered in 1965 for a protest march to the Alabama state capital, Montgomery. The march became an iconic symbol of the civil rights struggle after the 600 marchers were attacked with clubs and tear gas by the police.

At the same time as Obama speaks, Clinton will address worshippers at the First Baptist Church, just a few hundred yards away.

Although the Clinton campaign denies trying to "bigfoot" Obama, the seriousness with which they are taking him is demonstrated by the fact that Bill Clinton will also be present.

The former president made a last-minute change to his schedule to travel to Alabama, where he is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Voting Rights Museum.

Bill Clinton remains enormously popular with African-American voters and may prove to be his wife's most effective spokesman among the black community.

An Obama spokesman played down the significance of the Clinton campaign's attempt to steal Obama's thunder. "It's an important event," he said. "The more folks who commemorate and pay attention to it, the better."

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