THE SKY outside may be a drab shade of gray, but the politics of the day quickly have become a matter of black and white. As the primary season moves along to big game states such as California, New York and the Super Tuesday mega-primary, presidential hopefuls on both sides of the partisan divide are racing to garner support from racial and ethnic groups, specifically black voters.
So far the race has focused almost exclusively on white, middle class interests that represent the majority of voters in the four states already polled (Iowa, Alaska, New Hampshire and Delaware). But as the race moves into more diverse states - the Republicans battling next in South Carolina and the Democrats looking forward to New York - each candidate must work to expand the scope of his message and support base or else face electoral doom.
The support of black voters plays a particularly strong role in South Carolina, as primary politicking has been nearly overshadowed by an ongoing fight over the Confederate flag. Currently, the Stars and Bars flies over the state capital, despite protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The issue is a potential political landmine; defending the flag undoubtedly will alienate black voters, while denouncing it may drive away conservative, white votes.
So far, both of the Republican frontrunners - Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush - have skirted the issue successfully, supporting South Carolina's right to decide for itself. However, as the primary nears, both candidates must take a stand on the issue, or else potentially lose the support of black voters, among others.
Bush is in an especially precarious position, having come under criticism for a recent speech given at Bob Jones University, an ultra right-wing school that forbids interracial dating and openly discriminates against gays. He also refused to order the removal of a plaque from the Texas capital building that displayed the Confederate Flag, despite protest from the NAACP.
After his embarrassing defeat in New Hampshire, Bush's campaign hopes may rest on his success in South Carolina. Simply put, Bush can't afford to lose South Carolina, and his wishy-washy stance on issues important to black voters could cause him to do just that.
Similarly, Democratic heavyweights campaigning in New York - Vice-President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley - are having to play the game of race-specific politicking as well. New York's diversity requires a nearly complete change in focus for both candidates, who so far have spoken almost exclusively on topics geared toward suburban and rural white audiences - topics that may not be as important to urban, multicultural constituents.
Bradley has worked quickly to gain support from black voters, forging ties with well-known black leaders like activist Rev. Al Sharpton and former congressman Floyd Flake. In The Washington Post Sharpton criticized Gore, saying, "You don't expect a marriage before courtin', and so far we've only been dated by Senator Bradley" ("Emphasizing racial issues, Bradley plans detour to S.C.," Feb. 7).
While Gore comes into the New York race with multiple wins under his belt, an upset by Bradley could cause incredible damage to Gore's campaign, given the size and importance of New York in terms of voting delegates. The strategies that worked in the earlier races will not work in New York. Both candidates have to work hard to adapt.
These contests - Republican and Democratic - illustrate that the heart and soul of the primary process is constant change. Each candidate is forced to individually tailor his message week by week, and often day by day, to the varying demographics of different states.
The elections so far have shown how each candidate will fare in states with homogeneous populations, but these results can't predict how they will fare in other places. The efficiency of a candidate in addressing the specific concerns of individual racial, ethnic and gender groups will be the ultimate factor in the candidate's success or failure.