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VOL. 123 | NO. 20 | Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Democrats Heat up Primary Race

By Bill Dries

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CANDIDATES WELCOME: Veteran civil rights activist Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles welcomed Hillary Clinton to Monumental Baptist Church Sunday and said he also would welcome her rival Barack Obama. -- Photo By Bill Dries

There was a telling moment Sunday at Monumental Baptist Church. It came as Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton swayed in her chair to the melody of the church choir.

Laquita Jackson strode purposefully down the center aisle of the South Memphis church, a bundle of Barack Obama signs under one arm and holding another bundle of Obama fans. It caused a brief uproar in the crowd of 300 as she took her seat in the fourth row behind two women with larger home-made Clinton signs. A sign truce was quickly negotiated as the choir continued and something that happens occasionally among competing presidential campaigns blew over quickly.

As she left the church with the other visitors, Jackson left about a dozen Obama buttons on a back table. Fifteen minutes later they were gone and several turned up on church members as they left a bit later.

"While I love the Democratic Party - while I enjoyed the years of Bill Clinton - I just know that Barack Obama certainly brings out the change that this country truly deserves and has earned," Jackson said.

The Clintons are enormously popular among and familiar to active Democratic partisans in the city. Obama isn't nearly as well-connected locally. But he is a black presidential contender in a city whose local Democratic base of activists and elected officials is predominantly black. The last black Democratic presidential contender, Jesse Jackson, carried Shelby County in the 1984 and 1988 Tennessee Democratic presidential primaries.

Local differences

The Obama and Clinton campaigns have been scrapping for weeks to draw influential local Democrats into their respective folds. Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and Carol Chumney, his challenger in the 2007 city elections, have endorsed Clinton. So has former Gov. Ned McWherter, a long-time Clinton confidant. State House speaker pro tempore Lois DeBerry is in the Obama camp as is Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper.

"For many people probably it will be a difficult choice between (Clinton) and Sen. Obama," said former local Democratic Party chairman and recently elected Democratic National Committee member Gale Jones Carson as she left Monumental Sunday. "Everybody's been real cordial in both camps. There hasn't to my knowledge been any infighting."

Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, the pastor of Monumental Baptist and a close confidant of Jackson as well as the Clintons, was willing to admit that the competition by the Obama and Clinton camps has had a rough side nationally, particularly when former President Bill Clinton attacked Obama just before the South Carolina primary.

"I was just hopeful that they wouldn't beat each other up so badly. It started off pretty easy - not easy but without a lot of tension. As time went on, there was more tension trying to get that vote," Kyles said.

"I know that (Bill Clinton's) going to campaign for his wife, but I think at some levels it was almost too much for a former president to be doing the kind of things he was doing. I think it drew some support (for Obama) but probably not a great deal."

Changing landscape

For Memphis Democrats, a sought-after base nationally by Democratic presidential contenders, the race requires some thought. Kyles said that is a change from the past.

"It was too obvious," he said in a conversation following Sunday services in which he said Obama would also be welcome as Clinton was. "You knew straight up who you were going to vote for. Now you have to sift through it and see really who represents my views, who is going to really get to the bottom on what I think they ought to get to the bottom on. I really see it as growth.

"If Barack wants to come next Sunday, he's welcome."

Local Democratic Party chairman Keith Norman expects Obama will turn up in Memphis before Tuesday's primary vote although the scrap between the two camps may continue after the votes are counted here and across Tennessee.

"I think it's been a timing issue," he said. "Some wanted to gain momentum before saturating their efforts in the 24 (Super Tuesday) states. But because nobody's going to come out a clear winner either way, that's been some of the hold up."

Kyles, who isn't endorsing anyone, is no fan of the endless punditry and interpretation of the vote count, especially the idea that because Obama did well with black voters in South Carolina's primary and not as well with white voters that Obama has a problem now with white voters elsewhere.

"Just deal with he won South Carolina and move on to Super Tuesday," he said.

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