COLUMBIA, SC — Barack Obama brought his presidential campaign to the racially diverse South Sunday, walking what one analyst called a racial "tightrope" in his quest to become the first African-American to win a major party's presidential nomination and the White House.
Obama traveled to Atlanta to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., then to South Carolina, looking for strong support from African-Americans to put him back in the win column after losing to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in Nevada on Saturday.
But as he looked to buttress his support among African-Americans — especially with Bill Clinton vowing to go door-to-door in South Carolina to woo African-American voters for his wife, Obama also must worry about losing white votes to Sen. Clinton.
"He has this calculus he's got to deal with, not to alienate the white vote while pursuing the black vote," said Ron Walters, a top adviser to Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign and now a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "By now, you would think they'd have this transition seamless, but it seems that they haven't got it quite down."
Obama signaled Sunday that he plans to take on Bill Clinton more directly in South Carolina.
"The former president, who I think all of us have a lot of regard for, has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling," the Illinois senator said in a taped interview with ABC to be aired Monday. "He continues to make statements that are not supported by the facts."
Obama political strategist David Axelrod told reporters in South Carolina that "everyone understands him wanting to help his wife" but that Bill Clinton's planned campaigning in South Carolina is really "a strategy for him to carry the negative message for her."
The Clinton campaign dismissed the criticism, saying: "President Clinton is a huge asset to our campaign and will continue talking to the American people to press the case for Senator Clinton."
Obama is part of a generation of African-American politicians who came of age after the civil rights battles of the 1960s and have found broader appeal with less confrontational rhetoric. He reverted to that more familiar and apparently more comfortable style earlier Sunday at King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
"Our politics fuels and exploits . . . division across all races and regions; across gender and party," Obama said. "It is played out on television. It is sensationalized by the media. And last week, it even crept into the campaign for president, with charges and counter-charges that served to obscure the issues instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation."
"We can no longer afford to build ourselves up by tearing someone else down. We can no longer afford to traffic in lies or fear or hate."
Obama proved that he has crossover appeal by narrowly winning the white vote in Iowa and therefore the overwhelmingly white state. Since then, however, he narrowly lost the white vote in New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton, and he lost it to her in Nevada by 17 percentage points.
In South Carolina, where Democrats will vote this Saturday, Obama enjoys a lead in the polls of better than 2-1 among African-Americans, who could make up half the vote.
That would be enough to win the state. But Obama was third among white voters behind Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, according to a McClatchy-MSNBC poll last week, and a continued loss of white votes could spell trouble in other states.
Holding the black vote while winning the white vote puts Obama on a "tightrope," said Clemson University political scientist Bruce W. Ransom.
For Obama, the key is to continue avoiding being labeled the "black candidate," someone like Jesse Jackson who appealed to African-Americans and liberal whites but scared away moderate white suburbanites and couldn't win the nomination, let alone the presidency.
"If you get him to react in a way that looks like traditional (black) politicians, it might make him look less appealing," said Michael Dawson, a professor at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.
Moreover, Obama now must navigate a racial political landscape that the Clintons know well.
Bill Clinton courted and won African-American support to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992. After he had the nomination, he criticized Sister Souljah, a black singer, before Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, a move that was widely interpreted as a signal to white voters that he'd stand up to Jackson and wouldn't be captive to the party's African-American wing.