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The Obama question: Will his race matter?

Florence Adams, a Democrat, spotted something in Lexington recently that suggests that Barack Obama's skin color will cost him votes in Kentucky.

"I was behind a vehicle the other day and it had a bumper sticker that said, 'Keep the White House White,'" said Adams, 44, who is black and plans to vote for Obama because of his pledge to end the Iraq war. "Race shouldn't be an issue, but it's a problem that hasn't gone away yet."

It's not news that racism still exists in some segments of Kentucky society, but there's widespread disagreement about what role lingering prejudices will play in the presidential election here.

University of Kentucky political science professor Steven Voss, a researcher on race and politics, said people are overemphasizing the importance of race in the battle for president between Obama and Republican John McCain.

Voss, who is white, said the main reason McCain leads Obama by double digits in all public polling of Kentucky voters is that voters here generally don't warm up to any candidate, white or black, with a background like Obama's.

"When voters look at Obama, they may see more than just a black man," Voss said. "They also see a young man, a man educated at Harvard, a lawyer, a world traveler, a left-wing community activist, a Northerner, and a senator with a very liberal voting record. ... Kentucky voters generally resist candidates with that profile."

Still, that doesn't mean race isn't an issue, Voss said.

"Do I deny that some voters are so racist that for them there is no trade-off ... they really never would vote for a black man? No, I don't deny that," Voss said. "What I doubt is that many of these people typically vote for white Democrats in presidential elections."

Others disagree, saying they think Obama would get more support from the state's Democrats if he weren't black.

A telephone survey conducted for the Herald-Leader just before the primary election showed that more than one in five likely Democratic voters said being black hurts Obama's chances of winning an election in Kentucky, compared to 4 percent who said Obama's race helps him.

Hillary Clinton defeated Obama by 35 percentage points in the state. In some rural counties, she won with 90 percent of the vote and Obama garnered as little as 6 percent.

Of course, Kentucky isn't the only place where Obama's race might be an issue. Nationally, an AP-Yahoo News poll released last month showed that a little more than one-third of white Democrats and independents agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks.

Carolyn Sundy, director of special programs and cultural diversity at Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, contended that Obama's economic policies would benefit working people in Eastern Kentucky, but she thinks race is holding them back.

Still, Sundy, who is black, said most people won't come out and talk about race when they make references to Obama.

"Nobody is going to say it to me," Sundy said, "but it's understood."

Indeed, about a dozen voters interviewed in Eastern Kentucky for this story acknowledged privately that they would not vote for Obama because he's black or because they (incorrectly) think he is Muslim. All refused to be quoted.

Julian Carroll, the state senator and former governor who supports Obama, said he fears that his candidate could be in trouble in southern states, including Kentucky, because some people aren't ready to vote for a black man for president.

"I actually had one friend who said, 'I can't vote for a black,'" Carroll said.

Carroll, who is white, said he confronts people who have that attitude and tells them they are being un-Christian. "I'm hopeful that by the time they get into the voting booth, their faith will overcome their prejudice," he said.

Still, most voters interviewed for this story said their presidential pick will turn on more traditional concerns, such as party affiliation, experience, perceived patriotism, and who can best solve a myriad of problems facing the country.

Describing himself as "not politically correct," disabled veteran Ron Turner said he "won't vote for a man who won't wear an American flag pin; who doesn't stand at attention for the American flag; and whose middle name is Hussein."

Turner, 62, of Lexington, maintained that race has nothing to do with his opinions about Obama.

"I wouldn't know he was black if somebody hadn't told me," said Turner, who is white. "If we're ever going to have a black president, I think we missed the chance a few years ago with Colin Powell. I think he would have been a good president."

Patti Parsons, who has an Obama sign in her Lexington yard, said she got an anonymous letter in the mail last week citing a litany of reasons she shouldn't back Obama, but his race wasn't cited specifically.

The letter suggests that Obama is elitist, Marxist and dumb.

"I took it more as a Republican thing than a racial thing," said Parsons, who is white and a Democrat.

The letter, which Parsons gave to the Herald-Leader, suggests that it is Obama who is a racist.

"Obama sat in a church that spewed out hate and obvious racism for 20 years," the letter writer said. "You would have to assume that Obama is either a racist himself or just plain too stupid to be president."

Several white voters interviewed last week also said they thought many African-Americans would vote for Obama because he is black, not necessarily because they think he is qualified.

"Black people feel like they have been picked on all their lives and that this is their chance to get ahead," Turner said.

Haroon Lodhi, who runs a food mart in Richmond, said he thinks some whites probably will oppose Obama because of his skin color. But some blacks will vote for him for the same reason, he said.

"I think it probably will just balance out," he said. Lodhi, a Democrat, said he plans to vote for Obama, mainly on economic issues.

A Research 2000 poll conducted in Kentucky in September showed that 4 percent of black respondents favored McCain and 87 percent were for Obama.

In that same poll, 31 percent of white voters supported Obama at a time when he was getting more than 40 percent of white voters in many other states.

"I pretty much think that all the black people are going to vote for Obama," said John Rhodus, 57, a white Republican from Lexington who is leaning toward McCain. "And I feel like a lot of white people will say we don't want a black man in there. But I don't see it either way. A man is a man. His word is what I go by."

John Perkins, 59, an African-American and a former member of the Somerset Independent School Board, said some people assume he's voting for Obama because he is black. But that's not the reason, he said.

Perkins initially was a Hillary Clinton supporter, and until this year had been a registered Republican. He said that, as a Vietnam veteran, he has more in common with McCain than with Obama.

Perkins said he turned to Obama in the primary because Clinton ran a negative campaign. And he is choosing Obama in the general election because, he says, Obama has shown himself to be smart and capable.

Age and education also play a role in how voters view Obama, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

Among some older voters who have not been exposed to diversity on a college campus, "Obama has a problem," he said.

Cross, who is white, also noted that rural voters like it when a candidate asks them for their vote. Obama has been to the state only once in 2008, and that was a trip to Louisville.

Meanwhile, J.P. Prater, 18, of Richmond, who is voting in his first presidential election, thinks younger voters like him will largely ignore race. Prater is a Democrat and supports Obama.

"Most young people are less racially conscious," said Prater, who is white. "Nowadays, just about every young person has some black friends, has some Asian friends, has some Hispanic friends. I just don't see it as being as big a deal with people my age."

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