( dpa ) - Too black for the White House, or not black enough?
The US presidential campaign's latent race issue has erupted into the open as Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, seriously challenges former first lady Hillary Clinton for a chance to run for president.
With one of the nation's most emotional topics on the table, the Democratic nomination contest has its most bitter fight yet.
It's no coincidence that the rhetoric is heating up. At stake are black voters, a key Democratic constituency courted by both contenders, and Obama's persona as a post-racial politician who can unite black and white, Republicans and Democrats.
A Clinton remark that critics viewed as belittling martyred civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr drew a rebuke Sunday from Obama, who called it "ill-advised." Meanwhile, a black entertainment executive who backs Clinton made an apparent reference to Obama's admitted drug use as a young man.
Obama's supporters charge that the Clinton campaign is playing the race card. She accuses his side of deliberate distortions to fan a black-white confrontation. To complicate matters, former president Bill Clinton, a child of the once-segregated South who is campaigning for his wife, remains popular with African-Americans.
"Obama's campaign has really been about implicitly transcending race," said Peniel Joseph, a professor of black history at Brandeis University. "This is the first African-American candidate who hasn't made explicit appeals for racial solidarity."
That stance is vastly easier in 2008 than in past decades, but it's still a difficult balancing act.
One reason is Obama's perceived lack of street credibility among ageing, 1960s heroes of the US civil rights movement, men and women who often risked their lives fighting for legal equality and integration. In the 1990s, the civil rights establishment provided crucial support to Bill Clinton, sometimes dubbed the first black president.
In a bizarre twist, one civil-rights veteran suggested - in jest, he insists - that Hillary Clinton was the better choice for blacks because her husband had "probably gone with more black women than Barack."
But the underlying point by Andrew Young, a Martin Luther King confidant and later UN ambassador, was serious: Obama, 46, is too much of an outsider.
"Barack Obama does not have the support network yet to get to be president," Young told an online show in December. "Hillary Clinton, first of all, has Bill behind her. And Bill is every bit as black as Barack."
Obama, who was 6 when King was shot and killed by a white racist in 1968, has avoided embracing old-guard black icons such as Young, the Reverend Jesse Jackson or combative younger leaders like the Reverend Al Sharpton. Sharpton, in turn, has declined to endorse him.
All of this is a build-up to the Democratic primary on January 26 in South Carolina, the centre-left party's first presidential preference poll with a large African-American voice. Blacks could cast half the votes in the state primary, which explains much of the soaring tension.
Clinton, 60, may have more to lose, as leading African-American politicians weigh choices for the November 4 presidential election.
"We have to be very, very careful about how we speak about that era in American politics," Jim Clyburn, a civil-rights veteran and Democratic congressman from South Carolina, was quoted Friday as saying in The New York Times.
"It is one thing to run a campaign and be respectful of everyone's motives and actions, and it is something else to denigrate those. That bothered me a great deal," he said.
Obama's crossover appeal came into sharp focus on January 3, when he won the opening preference poll in Iowa, an overwhelmingly white Midwestern state. On the campaign trail, he has evoked not just King but also former president John F Kennedy, who was white.
His personal claim to black American heritage is also on record. Obama laid it out last March in Selma, Alabama, the iconic site of a series of 1965 marches in the southern state to win voting rights for blacks.
He talked about his African father and American mother, caught up in an era when "something (was) stirring across the country" and deciding to have a child.
"So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama," he said. "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants."