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February 11th, 2008
02:03 PM ET

Clinton, Obama navigating the water of black politics

Obama should skip Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union forum

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Roland S. Martin is a nationally syndicated columnist, Chicago-based radio host, and frequent contributor to the AC360° Blog.

Sen. Barack Obama took a lot of heat last year from participants in Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union annual confab, which was held in Virginia. To be fair, he was a little busy that day...announcing HE WAS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT!

Some of the folks there were beside themselves, and frankly, were childish about it, even saying that he should have put off his presidential announcement to be there.

Now, almost a year later, he is faced with a similar dilemma.

Smiley has announced that he will hold his State of the Black Union annual talkfest on Feb. 23 in New Orleans, La. This is a huge event attended by thousands each year; broadcast on C-SPAN; and attracts some of the nation's top black activists, politicians and intellectuals.

During his commentary Thursday on the Tom Joyner Morning Show, the most listened to black radio show, Tavis said he's invited the three top candidates, Republican frontrunner, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He said only one has accepted, and he will wait until tomorrow for the other two to decide.

He didn't say which one decided to attend, but on Friday, Clinton announced that she was attending.

In his commentary, Smiley said he was going to snap on those who don't attend on Tuesday's show, demanding that they own up to black issues and zero in on social justice issues as outlined in the book he edited, "The Covenant with Black America."

Here is my analysis of the situation, and hopefully it will put this presidential campaign and the delicate task of navigating the waters of black politics in perspective.

1. Clinton MUST attend. She led Obama in all of 2007 among black voters by huge margins. But that trend has shifted -dramatically. At best, she's polling at 25% among African Americans. Her acceptance is critical because she needs to capture 30% to 40% of the black to really stop Obama.

Also, her campaign doesn't have the cash Obama has. She needs any free media. And if Obama shows up, that means all the national media will be there, and the stage is set for her. Tavis said on the air that he would push for the candidates to debate the issues. She's called for more; Obama has only accepted two. Smart politics on her part, and if I were advising her, no doubt I would tell her to attend.

2. Obama must look forward, not in the past. The Louisiana primary, which he won handily, was on Saturday. Why go back to Louisiana for an event on Feb. 23? That is not to dismiss the needs of people along the Gulf Coast. But the only way he can truly help them is if he wins the nomination and the White House.

Obama needs to be solely focused on Texas and Ohio. Those two mega-states offer a huge bounty of delegates, and he needs to win a large state to move ahead of Clinton. She polls strongly in both states, and they are a huge part of her winning strategy; so much of her time will be spent there in the coming weeks.

All his time must be on the ground. In Texas, he must blanket South Texas because of the Hispanic influence. He didn't do well among Hispanics in California, and he must change that.

There is some hope (no pun intended). When former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk ran in 2002 for the U.S. Senate, he took 74 percent of South Texas. Yes, an Hispanic was running for governor, but that bodes well for Obama. In Ohio, he must do well among blue collar Democrats. Clinton has owned these low- to middle-income voters, and Obama must score well among them.

If Tavis wanted to have an impact, he should have held his event before Louisiana or before the Mississippi primary. As the saying goes, bad planning on your part doesn't constitute a sense of urgency on mine.

3. He can't be defined again as the black candidate. Some will say he must avoid black folks to be more palatable to whites and Hispanics. I disagree. But you can't deny the reality that he's running for president of the United States and not president of Black America. The week of the South Carolina was all about race, and he knows that is not a winning discussion because of this nation's history. His campaign successfully beat back that issue since South Carolina, winning nearly all-white states like Utah, Idaho, Montana,
Minnesota, Delaware, Connecticut, and Nebraska.

Obama is looking to have mass appeal, and showing up in New Orleans at a State of the Black Union event doesn't help him at all in a close race.

4. Send Michelle Obama. What is the purpose of surrogates if you can't make it somewhere? His wife is perfectly suited for this event, and that frees him up to go elsewhere. Plus, he's his top surrogate, and having a female counter your female opponent isn't a bad matchup.

Ask any campaign manager and they will tell you that when it comes to politics, especially in a close race, every minute matters. Candidates are on the phone lines campaigning, trying to raise money, and secure endorsements.

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Tavis Smiley is an author, political commentator, and talk show host

Spending the day with Smiley and his panelists is vital for Clinton. For Obama, time spent courting Latinos in Texas is more important.

African Americans are asking a lot of Obama, the best chance blacks have ever had of one of their own capturing the White House. I often hear folks say they want to know if he is going to back "their" issues.

By the way, when people say that black issues are being ignored in the campaign, they are wrong.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the nation's most prestigious think tank devoted to African American issues, released a survey showing that the top issues to blacks are the war in Iraq; healthcare; jobs and the economy; and education.

Sounds to me like the candidates have spent a lot of time on those issues, although they could always do more.

As an aside, when I asked my radio listeners on WVON in Chicago if Obama should skip the event, we got 29 calls in two hours, and only two said he should go. And this is a crowd that is normally in agreement with Smiley.

- Roland S. Martin, 360° Contributor


Filed under: Raw Politics • Roland S. Martin
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