Jeff Zeleny and Kitty Bennett contributed
2/12/08 N.Y. Times A1
It was November 2006 when Senator Barack Obama first
gathered friends and advisers at a Washington law firm to brainstorm
about what it would take for him to win the presidency.
who attended the meeting said the mix of excitement and trepidation
at times felt asphyxiating, as the group weighed the challenges of
such a long shot. Would Mr. Obama be able to raise enough money?
What kind of toll would a campaign take on him and his family? What
kind of organization could he build?
Halfway into the session, Broderick Johnson, a Washington lawyer and
informal adviser to Mr. Obama, spoke up. ''What about race?'' he
Mr. Obama's dismissal was swift and unequivocal.
He had been able to navigate racial politics in Illinois, Mr. Obama
told the group, and was confident he could do so across the nation.
''I believe America is ready,'' one aide recalled him saying.
The race issue got all of five minutes at that meeting, setting what
Mr. Obama and his advisers hoped would be the tone of a campaign
they were determined not to define by the color of his skin.
As he heads into a fresh round of contests Tuesday, the Potomac
primaries, in a tight rivalry with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of
New York and with an impressive record of victories across the
nation in which he drew significant white votes and overwhelming
black support, he claims to have accomplished that goal. Some South
Carolina supporters summed up his broad appeal and message about
transcending differences in a chant: ''Race Doesn't Matter.''
inside the Obama campaign show, though, that while the senator had
hoped his colorblind style of politics would lift the country above
historic racial tensions, from Day 1 his bid for the presidency has
been pulled into the thick of them. While his speeches focus on
unifying voters, his campaign has learned the hard way that courting
a divided electorate requires reaching out group by group.
Instead of following a plotted course, Mr. Obama's campaign has
zigged and zagged, reacting to outside forces and internal
differences between the predominantly white team of top advisers and
the mostly black tier of aides.
The dynamic began the first day of Mr. Obama's presidential bid,
when white advisers encouraged him to withdraw an invitation to his
pastor, whose Afro-centric sermons have been construed as antiwhite,
to deliver the invocation at the official campaign kickoff. Then,
when his candidacy was met by a wave of African-American suspicion,
the senator's black aides pulled in prominent black scholars,
business leaders and elected officials as advisers.
Aides to Mr. Obama, who asked not to be identified because the
campaign would not authorize them to speak to the press, said he
stayed away from a civil rights demonstration and did not publicize
visits to black churches when he was struggling to win over white
voters in Iowa. Then, a month after Representative John Lewis of
Georgia endorsed Mrs. Clinton, setting off concerns about black
voters' ambivalence toward Mr. Obama, the campaign deployed his
wife, Michelle, whose upbringing on the South Side of Chicago was
more familiar to many blacks than Mr. Obama's biracial background.
The campaign's strategy in the first contests left Mr. Obama
vulnerable with Latinos, which hurt him in California and could do
the same in the Texas primary on March 4.
Faulted by Latino leaders as not being visible enough in their
communities and not understanding what issues resonated with
immigrants, the campaign has been trying hard to catch up,
scheduling more face-to-face meetings with voters, snaring
endorsements from Latino politicians and fine-tuning his message.
Mr. Obama has resisted any effort to suggest that the presidential
primaries were breaking along racial lines.
''There are not a lot of African-Americans in Nebraska the last time
I checked, or in Utah or in Idaho, areas where I probably won some
of my biggest margins,'' he said Sunday in an NPR interview.
''There's no doubt that I'm getting more African-American votes,''
he said, ''but that doesn't mean that the race is dividing along
racial lines. You know, in places like Washington State we won
across the board, from men, from women, from African-Americans, from
whites and from Asians.''
A Rhetorical Tightrope
Axelrod, the chief strategist of the Obama campaign, said in an
interview that although he and Mr. Obama did not map out a detailed
strategy for dealing with race when plotting a presidential run,
they were well aware it would weigh on his campaign.
As a consultant to several black elected officials, Mr. Axelrod has
been steeped in racially charged elections. And he said Mr. Obama
had faced the challenges of racial politics in the campaign that
propelled him to the Senate, where he is only the third black
elected since Reconstruction.
Mr. Axelrod said he had learned there was ''a certain physics'' to
winning votes across racial lines. Previous campaigns by
African-Americans -- the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton
-- had overwhelmingly relied on black support that wound up
defining, and confining, their candidacies.
By contrast, from the moment Mr. Obama stepped onto the national
political stage, he has paid as much attention -- or more, some
aides said -- to a far broader audience. ''He believes you can have
the support of the black community, appealing to the pride they feel
in his candidacy, and still win support among whites,'' Mr. Axelrod
Questions about Mr. Obama's ''blackness,'' though, quickly
threatened to obscure the reasons he believed himself most qualified
to become the country's next president. A Rolling Stone article
linked him to the militant preaching of his pastor, the Rev.
Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. The story quoted the minister as saying in a
sermon, ''Racism is how this country was founded and how this
country is still run.''
Mr. Axelrod said he and Mr. Obama decided to take Mr. Wright off the
program for the campaign announcement in February 2007, concluding
that the attention would drag the pastor into a negative spotlight
and might distract from efforts to portray the senator as a
candidate capable of unifying the country.
The day after the rally, which was on the steps of the Old State
Capitol in Illinois, Mr. Obama was sharply criticized by
African-American academics, media celebrities and policy experts at
a conference in Hampton, Va. Among the most often cited was Cornel
West, the renowned Princeton scholar. He and others argued that Mr.
Obama should speak forcefully about the legacy of racism in the
nation and not cast the problems that disproportionately affect
blacks as social ills shared by many Americans.
''He's got large numbers of white brothers and sisters who have
fears and anxieties,'' Dr. West said at the time. ''He's got to
speak them in such a way that he holds us at arm's length; enough to
say he loves us, but not too close to scare them away.''
Working From Inside
Mr. Obama was so annoyed by the complaints, one aide recalled, that
he asked staff members to invite more than 50 influential
African-Americans, including some of his critics, to meet with him,
hoping to win them over with the gale force of his charisma.
But his aides cautioned that such a large event would be sure to
draw press attention. Instead, they suggested that Mr. Obama
establish a smaller advisory council of prominent black figures. In
a two-hour telephone call, he not only persuaded Dr. West to serve
on the panel, but also convinced him that his rhetorical tightrope
-- reassuring whites without seeming to abandon blacks -- was
Dr. West recalled the conversation, saying that if Mr. Obama focused
on disparities caused by a history of white privilege, ''he'd be
pegged as a candidate who caters only to the needs of black folks.''
''His campaign is about all folks,'' Dr. West said.
Initially, Mr. Obama's aides said, his campaign was all about Iowa,
whose mostly white electorate had established a reputation for
launching political underdogs. He seldom talked explicitly about
race, aides said. He did not publicize appearances at black churches
on his press schedule. Still, his campaign reached out quietly to
African-American voters, realizing that even the smallest pockets of
supporters could be decisive.
Aides said Mr. Obama's campaign was unaware of the magnitude of the
tensions brewing in Jena, La., over charges of attempted murder that
had been filed against six youths involved in a schoolyard fight
until plans for a march, organized by Mr. Sharpton, began to appear
in the news media.
Mr. Obama was the first presidential candidate to respond to Mr.
Sharpton's call to denounce what was going on in Jena, saying the
cases against the students were not a matter of black versus white,
but a matter of right versus wrong. He then called Mr. Sharpton to
explain that he had important votes in the Senate, and that he would
not attend the march because he did not want to politicize the
''We agreed on inside-outside roles,'' Mr. Sharpton said, referring
to himself and Mr. Obama, echoing a famous conversation between
President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
''I would continue my work agitating the system from the outside,
and he would do what he could to make changes from the inside.''
By the fall, however, while Mr. Obama's campaign was still trailing
Mrs. Clinton among white voters in Iowa, the loss of the endorsement
by Mr. Lewis, the Georgia representative, made clear that he faced
troubles among black voters as well.
''He told John that that he felt like a father was stabbing him in
the back,'' an aide to Mr. Obama said. ''Barack sees himself as an
extension of the civil rights movement, and so it hurt him deeply
when a leader of that movement told him he wasn't ready.''
Aides said it proved a pivotal moment in the campaign, with some
staff members -- mostly white -- urging Mr. Obama to stay focused on
Iowa, while others -- most of them black -- warning that he needed
to court black voters and elected officials more actively.
''Nobody put race explicitly on the table,'' one aide said. ''But
there was certainly the feeling among some of the black staff that
some of the white staff did not care enough about winning black
New Efforts to Reach Out
In the end, Mr. Obama satisfied both groups, keeping himself focused
on Iowa while dispatching his wife to South Carolina, where she
delivered a major speech at South Carolina State University, a
historically black college in Orangeburg.
''It took Barack a while to agree,'' said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a
Harvard professor who is part of the black advisory group. ''But we
told him she had to be the one to confront the myths and fears of
was a black woman, a mother, who grew up poor, learned to sleep
without heat and rose above that to get an Ivy League education,''
Professor Ogletree added. ''But she was also the kind of woman who
would take her shoes off because her feet hurt. She was real from
the moment she stepped on stage.''
By mid-January, Mr. Obama had so much support among black voters in
South Carolina that he worried that his rivals would try to
marginalize his campaign as a black-only phenomenon -- a concern
that later proved well-founded when former President Bill Clinton
compared Mr. Obama's campaign to Mr. Jackson's. So before arriving
in the state, Mr. Obama stopped in Atlanta to mark Martin Luther
Georgia, like South Carolina, was expected to deliver large numbers
of black votes to Mr. Obama. But it was also a place where his
viability as a candidate would be measured by his ability to win a
respectable number of white votes.
Standing before a congregation filled with veterans of the civil
rights movement, Mr. Obama talked about the struggles of a poor
white woman, whose family had no health insurance and often had to
choose between buying food and medicine.
While Mr. Obama has made great strides in appealing to white and
black voters, his campaign has proved less effective in drawing
Latino support. While a few experts point to longstanding rivalries
between blacks and Hispanics over jobs and other opportunities, most
faulted him as doing too little, too late.
''Obama's campaign failed to rise to the occasion,'' scolded La
Opinion, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in California, which
had endorsed Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama's national field director, Cuauhtemoc Figueroa, vowed that
Mr. Obama's effort in Texas would be different.
''You are going to see Senator Obama campaign the way he did in
Iowa,'' Mr. Figueroa said. ''We're going to take him to little
communities so that he's not only going to touch voters with his
words, he's going to be able to reach out and physically touch