AUSTIN, Texas — Although Hispanics outnumber African-Americans in Texas by 3 to 1, more blacks than Hispanics may turn out to vote in the state's Democratic primary on March 4 because they're fired up about Barack Obama.
The emergence of Illinois Sen. Obama as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination has generated more excitement among African-American voters than leading black Texas Democrats have ever seen. And if, as they suspect, black voters turn out in greater numbers than do the Hispanics whom Hillary Clinton's counting on, her hopes for victory could be crushed.
"This year, it is a force of nature that doesn't appear to need a whole lot of help from people like me," said Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor who in 2002 became the first African-American in Texas to win a major-party nomination for the U.S. Senate. "The black vote is going to turn itself out."
Rep. Marc Veasey, an African-American Democrat from Fort Worth and Houston Rep. Garnet Coleman, the chairman of the African-American Legislative Caucus in Texas, expressed the same sentiment. All three support Obama.
New York Sen. Clinton kicked off her effort in Texas last week with a high-powered tour through South Texas, where the Hispanic vote is considered crucial to her hopes for victory. In California on Feb. 5, she won the Hispanic vote 2 to 1, and that propelled her to a comfortable win over Obama.
The Clinton campaign circulated a memo last week suggesting that Hispanic turnout this year would likely surpass the 24 percent mark it reached in 2004, and that Clinton once again expects to run up the score in that constituency.
But Kirk and others said that blacks this year could account for 25 percent to 30 percent of the Democratic turnout. Veteran strategist Kelly Fero, who's white and neutral in the presidential contest, said it could be even higher.
"It's plausible that African-American turnout could push north of 40 percent in the Democratic primary," Fero said.
Such turnout would likely diminish or erase the 7- to 10-point lead Clinton has enjoyed in recent polls of Texas primary voters. Kirk, who lost the 2002 Senate election to Republican John Cornyn, said he expects Obama to win 80 percent to 90 percent of the African-American vote next month.
"As these primaries go on, you see him gaining strength among the black voters," Kirk said. "I have got to believe that trend will continue when he gets to Texas."
Veasey, who represents a heavily African-American district on Fort Worth's east side, said enthusiasm to vote is at an all-time high. But support for Obama among Veasey's constituents wasn't automatic when the race began. Older voters felt more loyalty to Clinton, in part because of their affection for former President Bill Clinton, while younger voters were drawn to the 46-year-old Obama, Veasey said.
"We were kind of split between Hillary Clinton and Obama," he said. "But something happened after South Carolina (where Obama won big on Jan. 26). It was like, hey, this guy can win this thing. You started seeing everyone — young, old, everyone — just move to Obama."
The divided loyalty among African-American voters was on display Wednesday when Obama was rallying supporters in Dallas.
"I was hoping this would never become a black or white issue," said Leala Green, an African-American voter. "I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King when he marched in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early 1960s when I was a student.
"And I defend Hillary Clinton," she added. "But I am going to vote for Obama. Once I started listening to him, I knew I would vote for him."
At a Bill Clinton rally in Tyler last week, Dexter Jones was holding out hopes for the best of both worlds for the African-American community.
"I wish they were both on the ticket together," said Jones, 41
He said that it's unfortunate if the Clintons are feeling somewhat betrayed by the black community, which was a cornerstone of the couple's support during Bill Clinton's White House years.
"I think the Clintons have the support of some of the African-American community, but it seems that many are turning to Obama," said Jones, who's still undecided. "Barack Obama has a great message — that we can be anything we want to be."
Coleman, a state lawmaker since 1991 who's helped the campaigns of countless Texas Democrats over the years, said he appreciates the conflict that some in the African-American community feel. He was a supporter of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards before he shifted to Obama.
"This is a powerful election year for all Democrats, but maybe especially so for African-Americans," he said. "We have not only a chance but a real chance to put one our own in the White House. People come up to me all the time and say they never expected to see this in their lifetime.
"I never expected to see this in my lifetime," he added. "I'm 46. I grew up when Texas was still segregated. A lot of us did. So are we going to turn out and vote? Hell, yeah."
TEXAS BY THE NUMBERS
Exact figures breaking down Texas Democratic primary voters by race or ethnicity were not available. But here are some demographic figures for the Texas population as a whole from the Census Bureau in 2006. Percentages exceed 100 because people may be of more than one race or ethnicity:
(Moritz reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Star-Telegram staff writer Anna Tinsley contributed to this report.)