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US Voters Divided Over Prospect of African-American Winning White House

Race has become an issue in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. Recently, Republican Senator John McCain, his party's presumptive nominee, accused Democratic rival Senator Barack Obama of exploiting the issue. Several public opinion polls suggest Americans are divided by race leading up to the November election, in which Obama will be the first African-American to run as a major party's nominee. In this feature on race and U.S. politics, VOA's Chris Simkins reports on the views of rural and urban voters and whether they are ready for a black president.

Democratic Senator Barack Obama could possibly become the first African- American president of the United States. That would be a milestone for a country that began allowing blacks to vote only some 40 years ago. Political observers say the moment Obama launched his campaign, it was inevitable that race would become an issue.

Just weeks into the contest with Senator John McCain the, Obama claimed that McCain and other Republicans were trying to scare voters.

"So what they are going to try and do is make you scared of me," Senator Obama said. "He doesn't look like all the other presidents on those dollar bills."

McCain accused Obama of raising the race issue.

"Race will not have any role in my campaign nor is there any place for it," Senator McCain said.
The debate over race and Obama's candidacy has exposed differences between voters who live in urban and those in rural areas.

In his Democratic Party primary battle against Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama was unable to win a majority of white working class voters in rural communities in several large states.
VOA surveyed voters in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, a rural community that traditionally supports Republican candidates.

Eighteen year-old Allison Bubb says she is skeptical about Obama. "I don't think that America is ready for anything new," Bubb said. "My friends that I talk to feel we don't think we are ready. I think we need to just skip this vote and keep going like we usually do with a white older male."

And in Franklin, West Virginia, another rural town, Edward Tallman, a newspaper editor, says people in rural areas are not ready for Obama. "I do not believe the majority of Appalachian blue collar (working class) white people are ready for that," he said.

Experts say racism persists across the country but especially in low income, rural communities in southern and border states like Mississippi and Arizona.

Curtis Gans is a professor at American University in Washington. "What we know is that he [Obama] can't win in Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, and probably South Carolina and Georgia," Gans said. "But in the areas where it is marginal you could say western Pennsylvania, it is also southwestern Ohio, and a few other places, you are dealing with this problem of the white working-class vote."

Big U.S. cities have traditionally been Democratic strongholds. VOA surveyed voters in New York, Miami and Los Angeles. Many felt their communities are more able to elect Obama than people in other parts of the country.

"Especially in the middle of the country people still have the background of racism and it might be more subconscious that they just do not vote for him but they don't think it is because of that," (voter) Marie said.

"I have lived in New York and New Jersey, and I believe New York and New Jersey can but I do not know about any other part of America," a voter said.

Foo Kong, from Los Angeles, thinks he sees the situation clearly. "I think that the ideas are divided here in America," Kong stated. "Although it has taken a century to fight against racial discrimination, in various parts of America there is still discrimination."

Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution is unable to predict how much support Obama will lose because of racial prejudice. "I do not know whether it is two percent, six percent, eight percent and whether it is felt mainly by people who would never vote for a Democratic candidate already or whether it is among Democrats who won't vote Democratic because their nominee is African-American," he said.

Political analysts say whether or not Barack Obama wins the race for the White House and becomes president, he has changed the political landscape and has broken one of America's oldest and most rigid lines -- the color line that separates black and white.