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US Voters Face Historic Choice


The race for the White House is omnipresent - on the nation's airwaves and in its newspapers. And because the contest is historic, with the expected nomination of Senator Barack Obama as the Democratic Party's candidate, the whole world is watching. VOA has been examining whether America is ready to send a black man to the White House. Jeffrey Young has the first in a series of reports.

The November 4 election will be like none before it. For the first time, one of the two major party candidates, Senator Barack Obama, is a person of color. Along with picking the next president of the United States, some voters will also be confronting their racial attitudes.

VOA asked people all over the country whether they are ready for a black president.

Political analysts are also expressing their views. Professor Larry Sabato, at the University of Virginia, says Obama's skin color will be an unavoidable factor come November. "Let's not be naive," Sabato said. "There is still some racial prejudice, and it is not just in the south and or in the border states. I think that it is a real problem for Obama. And, it is one that is tough for him to address. The more he talks about race, the more people will think about it. And yet, if it is unaddressed, it could be an even bigger problem."

Barack Obama's expected nomination will break a huge barrier. But he is not the first black person to bid for the White House.

In 1972, New York Democratic Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm sought but did not get her party's nomination. In 1968, when Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives, the nation was emerging from years of civil rights marches and sit-ins aimed at ending racial segregation and discrimination in the south.

All that culminated in April 1968 with the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Across the country, black anger and frustration boiled over into the streets.

Sixteen years later, Jesse Jackson campaigned for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. He drew some 3.5 million votes in the party's primaries. In his second unsuccessful bid, in 1988, he won double that number.

Barack Obama is presenting himself as a different kind of candidate, says Thomas Mann, with the research group The Brookings Institution, in Washington.

"Obama represents a newer generation of a minority candidate," Mann said. "He is not out of the civil rights generation. He is not confrontation. And, he is not running as an African-American. He is running as Barack Obama."

Obama's campaign has attracted white, Latino, and Asian-American supporters along with African-Americans. It has energized young people to a degree not seen since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972. On the surface, one could assume that Obama's broad-based support and poll numbers will serve him well on election day.

But researcher Vesla Weaver at the University of Virginia says there is a caveat. She says, in previous elections, black candidates have been handed an unpleasant surprise. "I think a lot of that does have to do with people getting into the voting booth and doing one thing, and coming out [of the booth] and saying they did another," Weaver said. "And that a non-trivial portion of that is due to a racially biased response."

In 1982, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's exit polls in the California governor's race had him ahead. But when the votes were counted, he lost.

In the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election, black candidate Douglas Wilder was ahead by ten points in pre-election polls. But his margin of victory was, in the end, less than one percent.

Political analysts call this the "Bradley Effect." They say it is still a factor.

VOA asked people from different regions, age groups, and income levels whether they are ready to elect a black president. While many responded positively, others said they're not sure.