Clinton looks to blacks for victory

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The Independent Online
BLACK BAPTISTS in Baltimore laid on a massive show of support for President Clinton yesterday when he ventured into Maryland for the penultimate day of campaigning for tomorrow's mid-term Congressional elections.

Officially, Mr Clinton's visit was to drum up support for the Democratic governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, who is locked in one of the country's closest battles against Republican Ellen Sauerbrey. But the occasion turned into a rousing endorsement of the President. The moment his helicopter landed close to the New Psalmist Baptist Church in south-west Baltimore, it was clear that thousands in the church, the hundreds still queuing to get in, and hundreds more streaming towards the venue had come to express their support for Mr Clinton.

He was greeted with a standing ovation and loud applause from those packed inside the church, and excited applause punctuated the almost three-hour service. Mr Clinton closed proceedings with a 20-minute appeal, scattered with Gospel references and allusions to the civil rights movement, to encourage the congregation to use their vote.

Commending the candidacy of Mr Glendening for governor, Mr Clinton told them that the Republicans were relying on the fact that many would not vote: "On Tuesday, you are in control of the arithmetic. You can vote." The turnout of black voters in particular is judged crucial to Mr Glendening's hopes for victory in Maryland.

The Baltimore conurbation has the largest concentration of black voters in the state and a smaller proportion of blacks commonly vote than whites.

Mr Clinton's visit was arranged at only four days notice - an unusually short time for a presidential event.

The pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church, William Scott Thomas, was one of a group of clergy called on by Mr Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky crisis. The theme of his hour-long sermon was that human flaws can and should be acknowledged and overcome. "You have to understand," he urged the congregation, "that flaws do not stop you doing God's work."

In his fierce oratory were also passages that could (and in some quarters were) read as a diatribe against the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr.

The choice of destination for Mr Clinton's last campaign stop outside Washington, and the occasion, a service of his own Southern Baptist denomination, were ideal for the President's somewhat delicate political situation.

Baltimore, despite tracts of almost Third World decay, is seen as a model of urban regeneration, with its thriving and much-imitated Inner Harbour development. With a black mayor and a large black population, the city is a Democratic stronghold and Mr Clinton has repeatedly found solace among America's black churchgoers in the weeks since he confessed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

With the American public sending mixed signals about their attitude to Mr Clinton immediately after his 17 August admission, Mr Clinton pursued a "Rose Garden" strategy in the early stages of the election campaign, barely venturing outside the White House and taking on strictly presidential duties. Some candidates felt Mr Clinton would be an electoral liability and made known he was not welcome at their campaigns. Mr Glendening went so far as to withdraw an invitation he had already issued.

Over the past week, emboldened perhaps by his continued high job approval ratings and a series of political successes - the budget and the Wye Agreement - Mr Clinton has risked a few brief public appearances in districts where the stakes are especially high.