Gore hopes black votes will swing Georgia

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The Independent US

In a neck-and-neck race with George W Bush, Vice President Al Gore is beginning to cast a hopeful eye on Georgia, a state that could still tilt Democratic at the last moment, depending on one overriding factor - getting African Americans to vote.

In a neck-and-neck race with George W Bush, Vice President Al Gore is beginning to cast a hopeful eye on Georgia, a state that could still tilt Democratic at the last moment, depending on one overriding factor - getting African Americans to vote.

In the coming weeks, the party will blitz black voters here, who make up about a third of the state's voters. The message to them will be blunt: your votes will be critical in snatching Georgia from George Bush. And if Mr Bush doesn't manage to win Georgia then, according to some political analysts, he will have lost the White House also.

The Texas governor has long been expected to sweep the South and denying him Georgia seemed, until a few weeks ago, an impossible task. But as the contest has tightened nationally so it has here. The latest polling by the Democrats suggests that Mr Gore is six points behind Mr Bush in Georgia. The gap could be erased with a big black turnout.

As of now, neither of the national campaigns has decided how much effort they will put into Georgia. There are only 13 electoral college votes at stake here, far fewer than in some of the battleground Midwestern states. But with a new Reuters/MSBNC poll released yesterday showing Gore just two points ahead nationally, this is now a contest where every single state, if not actual vote, could make the critical difference on election day.

"If Georgia turns out be close, it means Gore will win nationally," said Bobby Kahn, the chief of staff of Governor Roy Barnes and a key Democratic strategist in the state. And for it to be close, African Americans must be lured to the polls.

Among those working to energise the blacks is Michael Bond, a member of the Atlanta City Council. He is the son of Julian Bond, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which two weeks ago pledged to spend $9m (£6.5m) countrywide on a black voter registration drive.

On most days last week, Mr Bond could be found sitting behind a folding table at busy spots in the city, urging African Americans to register to vote. On Thursday evening, he was at the Five Points subway stop in downtown Atlanta, with a local radio station, 107.5 FM, broadcasting at his side to help grab the attention of commuters. "A lot of these people who come forward say they are voting for Gore but I haven't heard one say they want to vote for Bush," Mr Bond said. "They get frightened at the prospect of Bush winning. They say, 'Oh no, not this guy'."

At the party's headquarters here, meanwhile, preparations are under way to target every black voter in the state with phone calls and mailings in the last days of the campaign. There has even been talk of running television advertisements featuring the daughter of James Byrd, the man dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas, two years ago.

"I think it's going to be very close. I don't think either side can honestly say which man is going to win here," said David Worley, the state Democratic chairman. "But I don't think any African American wants to see a Republican president and a Republican Congress. Ask them and you will find they are concerned about Republican appointees to the Supreme Court and about gutting affirmative action."

The Silver Moon barbershop on Auburn Avenue is not a bad place to test that claim. It promotes itself as the "oldest black shop in Atlanta", and sits halfway down the avenue that once was known simply as "Sweet Auburn" and was the pulsating main artery of the city's black middle class. A long decline has made it a lonely place now.

John Louis Smith, 57, a commercial printer, is shooting the breeze outside while waiting his turn for his weekly trim and shave. He is not all that thrilled with Mr Gore's choice of Joe Lierberman as his running mate - his Jewish faith unsettles him - but he knows he has to vote for him just to keep Mr Bush from winning. "Some of those things he has been doing down in Texas are really not up to par," he said. While he admits he prefers Bill Clinton, who has always held the loyalty of African Americans, Mr Smith thinks Mr Gore, "could be up to the task." He is disturbed also by Mr Bush's choice of Dick Cheney. "He never voted to help poor people in Congress."

Also outside the Silver Moon was Grady Hunter, 47, who has never bothered to register to vote. But he has got the message from the Democrats and says he will register this week. "I just don't want Bush in there. Those executions for me are the main thing and the way things are going down there in Texas."

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