Obama fever builds as black Americans await a new era

North Carolina has eluded Democrats since Jimmy Carter's time, but the prospect of a black president has galvanised its African-American voters. Leonard Doyle reports
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The prospect of having the first black president of the US has created a huge wave of enthusiasm among African-Americans, many of whom are coming out to vote for the first time in their lives. That excitement was everywhere yesterday in Raleigh, the state capital of North Carolina, as Barack Obama arrived for a whistle-stop visit, his last in a final frantic push to turn this normally "red" state "blue".

"If Senator McCain is elected president he will privatise your social security," the Democratic presidential candidate told a huge racially-mixed audience. "That ain't right!" he declared. "It's not only not right, it ain't right!" he added, deliberately dropping some black kitchen-table slang into his speech.

"And whether you are Susie the student, Nancy the nurse, Tina the teacher or Carl the construction worker, you will do worse with John McCain," he said.

North Carolina has not gone Democratic since the days of Jimmy Carter. This year, there are hopes in the local party that the state will not only elect Senator Obama, but that his "coat-tails" effect will lead to the local senior Republican Senator, Elizabeth Dole, being thrown out of office.

That would bring the Democrats a step closer to having a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the US Senate.

The latest opinion polls are giving a powerful new lift to Senator Obama here and across the country. Even John McCain's home state of Arizona, is in a statistical dead heat, with Senator Obama showing momentum and trailing by 2 percentage points, well within the margin of error.

Even in places such as West Virginia, where he was hammered in the primaries, the Obama campaign is catching up. A national average of polls by the conservative RealClearPolitics website gave Mr Obama a lead of 50 per cent to 44.1, with his opponent trailing by 5.9 per cent.

Many black people who were hesitant about getting too excited over the heady prospect of seeing a black man elected president are allowing themselves to believe it might just happen.

In a noisy sports bar, where an equal number of black and white customers watched the baseball World Series in the midst of a karaoke session, Waheen McQueen, 25, a chef, said his support for Mr Obama was not about race.

"I didn't vote last time but I'm going tomorrow." He explained: "We are all paying a lot of taxes and the economy is in such a mess. This election is not about black or white, it's about trying to get the people of the United States who struggle every day of their lives to a better place."

At a bail bond office yesterday morning, a black man in his twenties was talking to a friend half an hour before Senator Obama was due to speak. "Hurry up," he urged, "I've got to get to the rally."

"What's up?" his friend said quizzically. "You've never been to a rally."

"No, you don't get it, it's brother Obama, he is baaad!" came the reply

In a nearby café, Donna Strickland, the white owner, said she is torn between voting for McCain and Obama but described herself as "disgusted" that so many African-Americans who she says know nothing about politics are coming out to vote on the basis of race. "Now what kind of an election is that?" she said, looking over at her black customers.

The three black women she was referring to are all government workers who had taken the day off to go to the Obama rally at midday. Barbara Pearson, 46, said her entire family had already voted early and spoke of how her hopes for a less racially-divisive America were resting on Mr Obama's slim shoulders.

Her friend Ida Tomlinson, 50, said her 91-year-old grandmother was voting for the first time in many years. "She uses a walker to get around, but nothing is going to stop her voting this time," Ms Tomlinson nodded. There are some 14 million registered black voters in the US and about 5.5 million voted for Mr Obama in the primaries – a record number.

That is still less than 50 per cent of the black electorate and leaves 10 million black voters eligible but unregistered. There are another 8.5 million who are registered but did not bother to vote in the primaries.

That is where the grannies and granddads may come in, and anecdotal evidence suggests that an army of them have already made their way to early voting centres across America.

Many grew up under the bitterness of Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation, in schools, restaurants, buses and even water fountains. An entire generation, that was denied the right to vote until the early 1960s is bracing for the pain should their hopes, be dashed.

Two years ago, before announcing his campaign for the White House, Senator Obama made a phone call to a local black politician named Ty Harrell, who had just ousted a six-term Republican in a predominantly-white constituency.

During one of his first days in North Carolina's State Assembly Mr Harrell's Blackberry started buzzing.

Barack Obama wanted to know how the 38-year-old had won in one of the most conservative constituencies of North Carolina and asked the younger politician how he persuaded so many white Republicans to abandon the habits of a lifetime and vote for him. Especially as bigotry has been the backdrop of political life in the South for as long as people can remember.

"'Things are changing,' I told him, even here in the South, and these days people are far more interested in policies than colour," recalled Mr Harrell, a rising star in the Democratic party.

"I also told him my opponent was a right-wing nut job and I let him hang himself with his ridiculous outdated notions," he said. "We talked a bit more and he hung up with a 'Thank you brother.' "

Today, it still remains uncertain that Senator Obama has managed to seal the deal with enough independent-minded white voters to ensure that when they pull the curtain in the voting booth on Tuesday, they will find the desire to vote for him.

In the early stages of his campaign, Hillary Clinton outpolled Senator Obama among black voters because many didn't believe he stood a chance of winning. Then came his upset victory in Iowa last January, a state that is 95 per cent white. "He quickly became the focus of all their aspirations," said Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor and author of Sellout: The Politics Of Racial Betrayal.

Suddenly they started to believe that it might after all be possible for a black man to win the presidency.

'There is more interest in policies than colour'

* Ty Harrell, a local politician, 38: "Things are changing, even here in the South, and these days people are far more interested in policies than colour."

* Barbara Pearson, 46: "I really hope he wins and not just because he is black, after all I have spent the last 25 years voting for white candidates for the presidency. He is just a great leader."

* Ida Tomlinson, 50, spoke of how her 91-year-old grandmother was voting for the first time in many years. "She uses a walker to get around, but nothing is going to stop her voting this time," she said.

* Michael Smith, 24: "All my family are voting, even my 84-year-old grandmother has voted for the first time in many years."