WASHINGTON, D.C. - If Bill Clinton was the "first black president," his wife and Barack Obama are vying to be the second.
Obama, the only black running for the White House, came into a debate Thursday night at predominantly black Howard University with the crowd on his side, chanting his name as all eight Democratic candidates posed for pictures on stage. But Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared to win many of them over in an impassioned performance that addressed their anger over inequality.
"If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country," Clinton said in the biggest applause line of the night, bringing audience members to their feet.
Black voters are a loyal base for Democratic candidates, which was why all the presidential candidates were sure to take part in a debate focused entirely on issues facing the black community. Polls show that blacks are closely divided between Obama and Clinton, with other candidates gathering less support.
"Clinton and Obama are both pulling on the heart strings of black voters," Democratic consultant Jamal Simmons said. "Most black voters are very fond of the Clintons, and having Hillary Clinton running for president and bringing back that feeling after years of President Bush is pulling on black voters out of a sense of loyalty. But Obama is pulling on them out of a sense of history."
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who served as Democrat Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, said the debate gave Obama an opportunity to introduce himself to many black voters who aren't familiar with him after he served just 2 1/2 years in Washington. "He didn't knock it out of the park," Brazile said, adding that Clinton was a standout.
"She clearly understood that these issues deserve urgent attention, and she connected on that," Brazile said of the New York senator.
She also is married to former President Clinton, so wildly popular among black voters that novelist Toni Morrison dubbed him "the first black president" in a 1998 essay.
While the two previous debates focused largely on Iraq, there were no questions about the war this time. Some candidates injected Iraq into their answers, saying they would use the money spent on the war on domestic priorities and winning applause for the promise.
The debate's moderator, Tavis Smiley, steered the candidates to other issues that matter to black America. In turn, the candidates said those issues mattered to them.
"This issue of poverty in America is the cause of my life," said John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee.
Said Obama: "It starts from birth."
Obama, who is the son of a black Kenyan man and a white Kansas woman, shared a bond with the largely black audience that no other candidate could claim. All the candidates decried the Supreme Court ruling earlier in the day that rejected school diversity plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., saying it turned back the promise of integrated schools that the court laid out 53 years ago in its landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Obama offered himself as a powerful example of a beneficiary of Brown. "If it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today," the Illinois senator said.
Sen. Joe Biden noted that he voted against confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion in Thursday's ruling. All the Democratic candidates in the Senate opposed the confirmation of conservative Justice Samuel Alito, another of Bush's nominees. Clinton, Biden and Obama voted against Roberts; Sen. Chris Dodd voted for his nomination; Mike Gravel left the Senate in 1981.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the first major Hispanic candidate, said race is about more than passing new laws and appointing new justices. "The next president is going to have to lead," he said, vowing to do so.
Black voters don't play a significant role in the primary race until after the leadoff contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are over, when Florida and South Carolina are scheduled to hold primaries on Jan. 29.
Blacks generally are more liberal than average voters - liberal longshot Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was the other audience favorite - so the trick for candidates is to appeal to blacks without alienating the rest of the electorate. Because Clinton is white, she has more liberty to give black voters what they want to hear without fear of being seen strictly as a black candidate.
Democratic consultant Jenny Backus said Obama's effort to speak to whites and blacks resulted in his best debate yet.
"Obama took his performance to a different level by showing the ability to have a conversation that was about race that wasn't just one way," Backus said. "He was talking to both whites and blacks in his answers."