Solicitor General

After Rush Limbaugh's comments about race and football sparked controversy last week, presidential candidates Howard Dean and Wesley Clark were quick to jump on the anti-Limbaugh bandwagon. Dean called Limbaugh's remarks "unacceptable" (though his campaign also made a gaffe in referring to Donovan McNabb as the quarterback of the "Philadelphia Jets") while Clark derided the comments as "hateful and ignorant speech."

The speedy responses of both campaigns could well suggest just how eager Democratic candidates are to burnish their credentials with black voters. The Democratic Party currently has two black candidates -- Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun -- seeking the nomination, but neither is likely to win a significant number of votes. Unless black voters and organizations prove as willing as the National Organization of Women -- which recently endorsed Moseley Braun -- to throw away their support on two unelectable candidates, the black vote should remain up for grabs. True, Jesse Jackson claimed a large percentage of black votes in the 1988 primaries, but, says Jerry Mayer, author of Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns 1960-2000, "Al Sharpton is no Jesse Jackson. He has not shown that he can win a single vote outside of New York." Sharpton has sought Jackson's support, but so far Jackson has declined to make an endorsement. As recently as last month, according to a Zogby poll, both Moseley Braun and Sharpton were garnering only single-digit support from blacks in South Carolina.

Other Democratic hopefuls have had mixed success courting black voters and leaders. Joe Lieberman has spent time in the black churches of South Carolina, where his strong faith and social conservatism are viewed favorably, while John Kerry picked up an endorsement from Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), a black politician with considerable appeal. But if the race continues along its current trajectory, Dean and Clark could well end up in a two-man battle for the nomination come this winter. Both will need black support. And, for a host of reasons, one of them will be a lot more likely to get it.

Dean's political experience has come in Vermont, where blacks make up a whopping one-half of 1 percent of the state's population. When questioned by Jake Tapper of Salon last February about whether he could appeal to blacks, Dean dismissed the concern, noting that he "had two African American roommates in college." This may sound like a bad parody of a white politician trying to relate to black voters -- the patrician son of an investment banker fondly recalling his days at Yale University, where he befriended blacks. Unfortunately, Dean was serious.

Dean loyalists would no doubt protest that his privileged background is beyond his control and that it pales in significance to where he stands on issues important to blacks. They would have a point, though Bill Clinton certainly demonstrated the value of cultural familiarity in winning over blacks at the ballot box. But even on the issues themselves, and despite an appearance last week at Howard University, Dean may have trouble appealing to black voters.

On social policy, Dean's progressive tendencies run counter to the stances of many blacks. In 2000, Dean signed civil-unions legislation that broadened the benefits available to same-sex couples. But Dean's courageous stand on this issue won't resonate with many religious blacks: A recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the strongest opposition to gay marriage comes from white evangelicals and black Protestants.

What about those social issues on which Dean stands to the right of his party's base? Dean's death-penalty conversion -- he recently expressed reluctant support for its use after years of opposition -- won't garner much sympathy from the black community, either. Polls consistently indicate that minorities in general, and blacks in particular, are more likely than whites to oppose capital punishment. Similarly, Dean's opposition to gun control probably won't sit well with black voters, many of whom live in urban areas where expanding and toughening gun laws is of paramount importance (unlike in the rural hunting grounds of Vermont, where it's not). An ABC News poll conducted in the spring of 2002 revealed that more than two-thirds of nonwhite respondents favored stricter gun-control laws, compared with a little more than half of the whites surveyed; the General Social Survey has consistently captured greater support for gun-permit laws among blacks than whites.

The problems only get worse for Dean on questions of fiscal policy. His well-known tendency toward fiscal conservatism places him squarely at odds with black voters. For example, in a 2000 National Election Studies poll, more than a fifth of white respondents indicated that they supported cuts in government services -- including health and education -- in order to reduce spending, compared with just 5 percent of African Americans. Meanwhile, Dean has repeatedly expressed sympathy for a balanced-budget amendment despite its likely devastating effects on the nation's most disadvantaged. Add to this an unfortunate comment he once made about how welfare recipients "don't have any self-esteem -- if they did they'd be working," and you have a good indication of the obstacles Dean faces in his quest for support from the black community.

All of which gives Clark an opening. As with so many aspects of his nascent candidacy, it is unclear whether Clark will be able to turn potential assets with black voters into real support in primary states. But the ingredients are there. Clark hails from Arkansas and, like Clinton, can tell tales of living through the integration of schools in that state. He is comfortable with religious language, another skill that Clinton was able to use to great effect in black churches. And he has made clear that he enthusiastically supports affirmative action. Perhaps most significantly, Clark has spent most of his adult life in the armed forces, probably the most integrated working environment in the United States. Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than in any other sector of American society. And there are by far more black officers in the Army -- where Clark made his name and his home -- than in any other branch of the services.

When he talks about domestic policy, Clark tends to place issues like health care, education and job training within the context of his military experience, arguing that if we invest in those areas in our military, we should do the same in civilian society. Such arguments should resonate among blacks, who are more likely than whites to have had personal contact with the military -- either themselves or through family members. While blacks constitute 12 percent of the general population, they make up 21 percent of the armed forces.

The same day that Clark made his official campaign announcement, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), dean of the congressional black Democrats, declared his support for the former general. Clark cannot take support from black voters for granted, but he can build on some potential bases. On the day he declared his candidacy, members of the Boys and Girls Club of Little Rock, half of whom were black, were positioned behind the stage, holding signs with slogans like "The Wes Wing." Plenty of the kids looked annoyed to be sitting in the midday Arkansas heat. Some tapped their signs against the ground (or against a neighbor's head) and stuck their fingers in their ears when the cheering grew too loud. But the well-integrated group of children had most likely been chosen for a reason. What matters for Clark is whether their parents will throw in their lot with him. There's reason to think they will.

Amy Sullivan and Jake Rosenfeld are doctoral candidates in sociology at Princeton University and the authors of the Web log Political Aims.