Clinton says even if Obama wins primary, Mississippi’s choice is historic

Published 5:37 pm Friday, March 7, 2008

Fresh off a trio of primary victories, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to set low expectations for Tuesday’s primary in Mississippi by telling Democrats that even if they support her opponent the moment is historic.

Her appearance at a state Democratic dinner here, and at a scheduled town hall Friday morning in Hattiesburg, could be her only stops in the state where her campaign has said Sen. Barack Obama, her rival for the party’s presidential nomination, will likely do well.

“I’m well aware that Senator Obama has an enormous amount of support here, as he should, as he should have,” Clinton said. “Some people have said ’Well Mississippi is very much a state that will most likely be in favor of Senator Obama.’ I said ’Well, that’s fine,’ but I want people in Mississippi to know I’m for you.”

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With the contest down to a state-by-state hunt for convention delegates after her wins this week in primaries in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island, Clinton hopes to pick up as many of Mississippi’s 33 delegates as she can.

Obama is expected to do better, partly because of the gains he has made with black voters. Mississippi’s population is 37 percent black.

Clinton, who had long counted blacks as part of her base, has seen that support slip throughout the primary season. It took a turn particularly when her husband, Bill Clinton, angered some black voters after Obama won South Carolina’s primary in January.

The former president suggested Obama had won simply because he was a black candidate campaigning in a state with a lot of black voters. Since then, while Hillary Clinton has run strong among whites, older and less-educated voters, Obama has carried the black vote, as well as younger and more affluent voters.

In both Ohio and Texas on Tuesday, more than eight in 10 blacks backed Obama, similar to previous contests. Blacks comprised about one in five voters in each state.

Bill Clinton — once so popular among black voters that novelist Toni Morrison called him the “first black president” — was to headlining a fish fry in Tupelo, Miss., on Friday, followed by more campaigning for his wife in the state on Saturday.

The audience of several hundred Democrats at Thursday night’s Jefferson-Jackson-Hamer Day dinner at an equestrian facility was a mix of Clinton and Obama supporters. Signs for both candidates dotted the arena, and she entered to chants of “Hillary” and “Yes we can,” which is an Obama campaign mantra.

“Now whether you are supporting me or not, you’re supporting the kind of historic change that comes maybe once a generation,” she said. “This is our time, Democrats. This is our opportunity.”

While in Mississippi, Clinton also might have to try to soothe any hurt feelings from her comment last year about the state. Clinton was speaking with the Des Moines Register about how Iowa and Mississippi were the only states yet to elect a woman to Congress or as governor, when she said:

“How can Iowa be ranked with Mississippi? That’s not what I see. That’s not the quality. That’s not the communitarianism, that’s not the openness I see in Iowa.”

Obama supporters, including former Gov. Ray Mabus, held a news conference Wednesday at Obama’s campaign office in Jackson to remind voters of what she had said. Mabus said Clinton had insulted the state.

“It’s kind of clear what she was doing. She was trying to curry favor with Iowa because there was an election going up there,” Mabus said. “It’s also clear that she didn’t expect ever to have to be in Mississippi.”

Ending her speech, Clinton acknowledged her remarks and said the state has a chance to make a real statement.

“And that is for Mississippi to vote for a woman for president on Tuesday. Let’s go make history together,” she said, before breaking into an Obama-like chant of “Yes we will! Yes we will!”