WASHINGTON — Greenville County (S.C.) Council member Xanthene Norris said she was hearing from them almost daily, usually by e-mail, sometimes by phone and every now and then in person.
"I've heard from Hillary, Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Chris Dodd — he came by here about a year ago," Norris said. "They know me when they see me."
The 2008 Democratic presidential candidates have been beating a path to the 77-year-old Norris because she's one of the most sought-after commodities in the campaign: an African-American elected official who's undecided about which presidential candidate to support.
With the African-American vote perhaps crucial to deciding who wins the party's nomination, Democratic candidates are aggressively looking for endorsements by African-American officials from town halls to Capitol Hill and from grass-roots activists to A-list entertainers.
"We've never seen this number of candidates fight for the black vote," said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who was the deputy campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. "They're fighting so hard because it (African-American vote) is so decisive in some primary states, and because the primaries are so packed and front-loaded that the candidates can't be everywhere. They need surrogates."
The candidates know the electoral math in key states.
African-American voters represent nearly a quarter of Florida's Democratic electorate and accounted for nearly half the votes in South Carolina's Democratic primary in 2004. Both states hold primaries next Jan. 29.
So far New York Sen. Hillary Clinton appears to be ahead in wooing significant African-American backing, several experts said. Using her own political clout and tapping into former President Bill Clinton's Rolodex, she's compiled an endorsement list that includes seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Philadelphia Mayor John Street, former New York Mayor David Dinkins, author Maya Angelou, composer Quincy Jones and Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television.
"Hillary has worked it very hard over the years," said Donna Brazile, an African-American who managed former Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. "Obama is playing catch-up largely because, as a first-term senator, he's the new face in the political arena. She knows (music mogul) Clarence Avant, she knows Quincy Jones, she knows (Rep.) Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio)."
Officials for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign say he's had no trouble landing major African-American endorsements. His roster includes 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, scholar Cornel West, former Southern Christian Leadership Foundation President Joseph Lowery, former Clinton administration Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
"They really speak to the depth of support for the senator in the African-American community," said Candice Tolliver, a spokeswoman for Obama's campaign.
And Obama is narrowing the huge lead among African-American voters that Clinton had early in the campaign, polls show. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in January had Clinton ahead of Obama among African-American voters 60 percent to 20 percent. A Gallup poll released last month showed Clinton leading Obama among African-Americans 43 percent to 42 percent, a statistical dead heat.
Not to be outdone, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has received nods from four Black Caucus members, Julius Chambers, the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and actor Danny Glover.
Walters warned that while getting as many important African-American endorsements as possible may enhance a campaign, it doesn't mean a lock on the African-American vote. He cited the race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination as a cautionary tale.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale received the bulk of endorsements from established African-American elected officials, community leaders and civil rights organizations, and won the nomination — but Jackson netted 77 percent of the African-American vote in the primaries.
"The black vote isn't monolithic," he said. "Blacks vote for who they want to vote for."
Some political experts dismiss the value of endorsements, saying they're merely window dressing that yields few votes for a candidate. But with the Democratic field so big and a campaign season that's getting shorter by the month, a good word or two from the right person could make a difference, several political experts said.
"If the choices are tough, endorsements do matter," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a Congressional Black Caucus member who's endorsed Obama. "With Obama, there was the issue of whether he's black enough. When an Elijah Cummings comes along, people may look at me, look at my district and say, 'Let's give this guy a clear look, because Elijah Cummings likes this guy.' "
Democratic candidates have come to rely heavily on the African-American vote in the general election. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democratic nominee, received 88 percent of the African-American vote to President Bush's 11 percent.
"It shows that (African-American voters) are still a very strong and viable group that cannot be ignored," said former Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., an African Methodist Episcopal minister who's the pastor of one of the largest churches in New York City. He sat out the 2004 presidential campaign but has endorsed Clinton this year. "If they are ignored and stay at home, the election has the potential of going back to the Republicans."
(The ABC News/Washington Post Poll was a phone survey conducted Jan. 16-19 with a random national sample of 1,000 adults The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points overall. The Gallup Poll was a nationwide phone survey of 2,388 people 18 and older was conducted June 4-24. The poll included over-samples of African-Americans weighted to reflect their proportion of the general population. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.)