Clinton fails to take the South by storm: David Usborne reports from Georgia on the Democratic party's efforts to mobilise the Afro-American vote

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NOT A black to be seen. No doubt about it, we were lost and this was white red-neck country. Not the sort of place for our fellow passengers, the three singers of the group Lady Soul, to get out and strut their Harlem funk.

Ours was the last in a small caravan of buses hired by the Democratic Party last week to tour the South to get out the black vote for 3 November. Adrift from the others, we were blundering around the back country roads of South Carolina in search of Interstate 20 west to Augusta, Georgia. In the end, this newspaper saved the day with a map, bought, I think, in Saffron Walden.

Things barely improved when we arrived two hours late at the Augusta venue: the administration building of Paine College, a mostly black campus on the edge of town. The lead buses, with several black US Congressmen on board, had themselves just got there, and only a handful of students had bothered to wait around. As for Lady Soul, their sound system had mysteriously packed up.

As part of the effort to motivate blacks to support Bill Clinton for the White House, it had not been a good day. As with every Democratic candidate since Lyndon Johnson, winning a huge black endorsement is critical to the Governor's hopes of winning the old Confederate South. Jimmy Carter did it in 1976 and Mr Clinton, also a Southern boy, should be well placed in 1992.

The issue is not whether the black community prefers Mr Clinton to President Bush - with most that goes without saying - but rather how many will actually vote. If the black turn-out is large enough, the Governor could win most southern states even if he gets only two out of five white votes. But he is accused by some blacks of taking their support too much for granted.

Taking some shade under a giant magnolia, Jason Turner, a 20- year-old engineering student at Paine, was in little doubt about his choice. 'Bush has screwed up and Clinton is meant to bring change, supposedly,' he said. But he reported apathy among his peers and was uncertain about the Governor's chances. 'I'm not sure he's going to win. Deep down, I have the sense that Bush is going to pull it out again.'

Kweisi Mfume, a young, rising black Congressman from Baltimore on the tour, angrily rejects suggestions that African-Americans have been ignored. 'I don't know where that comes from. As far as the elected black leaders are concerned, and the clergy, we see no cracks in the support at all,' he says, adding that he is confident of a big turn-out. 'In 1988, people had the sense that Dukakis was going to lose anyway. This time they see the chance to win.'

Later the same day, though, the Reverend Joseph Lowry, the outspoken successor to Martin Luther King as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, bluntly disagreed. Leaning on the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in north-east Atlanta, where Dr King used to preach, he bellowed: 'I'm not pleased with the campaign at all.' Specifically, he complained, with some justification, that Mr Clinton had distanced himself from blacks as part of a strategy of winning back white Democrats who had defected to Reagan and Bush.

Still, Mr Lowry gave his best to the cause in a late-night sermon to the Ebenezer congregation. In a passionate crescendo, he cried: 'We're going to vote on 3 November and we're going to drive the rascals out. We can't afford to stay at home. We've come too far, we've prayed too hard, we've suffered too much, we've died too young to miss the opportunity.' The small church then erupted with the chorus of 'We Shall Overcome'.

Later, in a moving interlude quite different to the near-farce of the first part of the day, Mr Lowry escorted our group under a full moon to the tomb of Dr King, set in the centre of a long reflecting pool adjacent to the Ebenezer Church. 'Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, I'm Free at Last,' reads the inscription. Dr King was assassinated in 1968.

Even the Congressmen admit that the main force on their side is more the anti-Bush feeling among blacks than any passionate commitment to Mr Clinton. The Governor, though, has a record most blacks appreciate. In Arkansas he has appointed blacks to government positions out of proportion to their numbers. He also promises progress on civil rights, specifically by restoring a liberal balance to the Supreme Court.

Current polls show Mr Clinton leading in several southern states, if only by narrow margins in some, such as Georgia. It would seem that his effort, so distasteful to Mr Lowry, to attract traditionally conservative southern whites is working. He should have some appeal where Michael Dukakis did not, if only by virtue of his generally moderate profile and tough views on crime, including his willingness to use the electric chair.

Bumping white support up towards the 50 per cent mark will, however, remain difficult. Where once they were the Democratic bedrock, the southern whites abandoned the party once it began, under Harry Truman, to represent the voice of civil rights and racial equality. Many would still rather set their ante-bellums alight than vote for Mr Clinton.

Among these is Bo Bovard, direcor of bridge-building company in Augusta that would directly benefit from Mr Clinton's pledge to invest in American roads. He thinks Mr Bush has been an 'abominable' President, but could still never contemplate supporting a Democrat. 'I'm not willing to sacrifice my political principles for the sake of a few years of prosperity for my company,' he says. But he admits that, even in Georgia, it may already be all over for Mr Bush.

(Photograph omitted)