WASHINGTON – When John Kerry (search) visited Atlanta's most famous black church last month, parishioners at Ebenezer Baptist had to be nudged back to their pews after hundreds rushed to meet the Democratic front-runner.
When President Bush solemnly placed a wreath at the Atlanta grave of Martin Luther King Jr. a few weeks earlier, a low chorus of boos rumbled from protesters across the street.
Black voters, the most loyal of Democrats, were quick to close ranks around Kerry during the party's primaries, underscoring Bush's challenge in trying to improve his showing among black voters this fall. Bush would have to go back to Barry Goldwater (search) in 1964 to find a Republican presidential candidate who did worse than the 9 percent he claimed in 2000.
Blacks heavily favored Kerry throughout the Democratic primaries everywhere except South Carolina, where they split their votes about evenly between Kerry and native son John Edwards (search). Even so, they still are developing a rapport with Kerry and have yet to fully explore his views.
Black voters "don't know him as much as they would like to," said Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland. "They don't feel that he is where they are, but they're not asking a lot of questions right now."
Detailed study of his positions will come later, Walters predicted, once Kerry has fleshed out more specifics on issues of particular concern.
Steve Elmendorf, deputy campaign manager for Kerry, said the Massachusetts senator's ability to win black votes was a big factor in his success in the primaries. He said Kerry had diligently courted minority voters around the country, even early on when most of the attention was on the race in overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire. Looking toward the fall, Elmendorf said the presumptive Democratic nominee may well benefit from a level of antipathy toward Bush strong enough to mitigate some of the usual difficulties in trying to unite blacks, Hispanics and other voting blocs.
Kerry, said black historian Roger Wilkins, "has the great benefit of being not Bush."
"All the black people that I talk to do not start talking about Kerry, they start talking about how much they dislike the president," Wilkins said.
Kerry signaled his resolve to cement his support among blacks this week when he told a radio interviewer, "President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn't be upset if I could earn the right to be the second."
Republican pollster Glen Bolger said that with blacks disproportionately affected by any economic weakness, Bush's hopes of doing better among blacks hinge on improvement in the job market. Unemployment among blacks is 10.5 percent, nearly twice the national average of 5.6 percent.
Even in a good year, though, a Republican is lucky to get 15 percent to 20 percent of the black vote, Bolger said.
Democratic pollster Ron Lester, who is black, said Bush's standing with black voters has only gotten worse since the 2000 election, citing their economic concerns and opposition to the war in Iraq. Blacks also have been unhappy with Bush's handling of the unrest in Haiti, criticizing the administration for failing to do more to protect democracy and provide humanitarian aid.
"It really creates a playing field that's very steep for the Republicans," Lester said. "I wouldn't be surprised if they write the black vote off soon."
The Bush campaign and Republican National Committee insist they'll do nothing of the kind.
RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, in a visit to South Carolina last year, said the party planned to set specific goals for increasing its share of the black vote and predicted the party would make inroads. Younger black voters, for instance, are less likely to identify themselves as Democrats and may be more open to considering GOP candidates, he said.
Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said the president can point to a number of policies that are attractive to black voters, including efforts to increase minority home ownership, boost trade with Africa and target grants to schools in high-poverty areas.
"Every vote is a priority in this election, so we will be reaching out to all voters to talk about the steady leadership President Bush has provided," he said.
Exit polls from this year's Democratic primaries found that when voters were asked their feelings toward the Bush administration, whites were far more likely to describe themselves as angry than were blacks, who most often described themselves as dissatisfied.
David Bositis, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on black issues, said that may be a reflection of blacks' lower expectations for Bush.
"Bush was not a surprise to African-Americans," Bositis said. He added that Bush may do better among blacks this fall than in 2000, but only because it's hard to do much worse.