Mississippi Democrats head to polls, with Obama riding high

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, March 11, 2008

GREENVILLE (AP) — Barack Obama made a final appeal to Mississippi voters as Democrats Tuesday decide the last in a series of presidential contests between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton before the two rivals settle in for a six-week battle to win Pennsylvania.

Mississippi’s large black electorate makes the state fertile ground for Obama, who has swept the other Deep South states and has pulled huge margins among black voters. Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, campaigned in the state last week, but by Monday was in Pennsylvania, where the primary is April 22.

Obama, making a final stop Tuesday morning in Greenville before flying to Pennsylvania, noted that the Mississippi delta area is struggling economically.

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“We just haven’t seen as much opportunity come to this area as we’d like,” he told a small gathering at Buck’s restaurant. “And one of the challenges, I think, for the next president is making sure that we’re serving all communities and not just some communities.”

“I’ve been praying for you,” a man called out.

“I believe in prayer,” Obama replied.

He then ordered eggs “scrambled hard,” with turkey sausage, wheat toast and grits.

The Illinois senator spent all of Monday in Mississippi, drawing enthusiastic crowds in Columbus and Jackson, the capital. At stake are 33 delegates and another chance for Obama to ease the sting of last week’s losses to Clinton in primaries in Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island.

In Lowndes County, Miss., Circuit Clerk Haley Salazar said Tuesday there appeared to be good early participation at the polls despite wet conditions.

Obama’s visit on Monday “spurred a lot of interest here. We’ve had a lot of people coming in and asking about registering to vote … and we have a a lot of calls,” Salazar said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has endorsed Obama, praised Mississippi’s primary as an example of how far the state has come from the racial and gender politics of the past, but worried about the ability of the two candidates’ campaigns to pull together in fall.

“My concern is they keep one eye on winning and one eye on reconciliation,” Jackson told The Associated Press in an interview. “By the ending they must have one big tent to avoid a collision.”

Former Gov. Ray Mabus campaigned with Obama Monday and Tuesday, and said in an interview he believed the campaign would do well.

“The Clinton campaign has made a big effort here,” Mabus said. But Obama’s message seemed to resonate with voters, he said. “There’s a mood of hope and optimism,” he said, even though parts of the state are struggling economically.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., also joined Obama on Tuesday, and said the heavily black delta region would go overwhelmingly for the Illinois senator. Mississippi Democrats were energized by the Obama-Clinton rivalry, he said, whereas Republicans seemed less enthusastic, in part because John McCain has locked up the GOP nomination.

With Clinton’s camp saying she has little chance in Mississippi, the campaigning here focused largely on national issues.

Obama used his Monday morning visit to Columbus to try to squelch speculation that he might accept the vice president’s slot on a ticket headed by Clinton. He noted that he has won more delegates, states and votes than Clinton.

“I don’t know how somebody who is in second place is offering the vice presidency to the person who is first place,” Obama said, drawing cheers and a lengthy standing ovation from about 1,700 people. He added: “I am not running for vice president. “I am running for president of the United States of America.”

Later, at a rally in Jackson with 9,000 people, Obama painted Clinton as part of the Washington establishment whose time has come and gone.

The nation does not need “the same old folks doing the same old things, talking the same old stuff,” he said, essentially lumping Clinton with President Bush and Republican candidate John McCain.

He accused Clinton’s campaign of leaking a photograph of him wearing traditional African garments, including a turban, during a visit to Africa. That was “straight out of the Republican playbook,” Obama said. “That’s not real change.”

Clinton has said she is not aware of anyone on her staff leaking the photo.

For her part, Clinton had moved on to Pennsylvania, where she held a rally in Scranton and carefully sidestepped questions about the sex scandal threatening the political career of Eliot Spitzer, her home state governor and political ally.

“I don’t have any comment on that,” she said when asked about reports that Spitzer allegedly paid for sex with a high-priced call girl at a Washington hotel. “Obviously, I am sending my best wishes and thoughts to the governor and to his family,” Clinton said.