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Lessons of defeat influence Obama presidential campaign
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By CHRISTOPHER WILLS
Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO (AP) — Barack Obama learned campaign humility the hard way — in a failed congressional effort during which his opponent portrayed him as an "educated fool," more at home on a college campus than a city street.
Catch Obama on the trail in South Carolina these days, and he might be teasing a barber shop customer about a flamboyant pair of shoes. Or in a church explaining how faith keeps him grounded.
He’s vigorously campaigning for black votes, but doing it with a down-to-earth style that portrays him as a regular guy.
In 2000, when he challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther and Chicago alderman, Obama got just 31 percent of the vote to Rush’s 62 percent in a three-way primary.
Mark Allen, now a big Obama fan, remembers a candidate who sometimes turned voters off by emphasizing his big ideas and prestigious degrees instead of listening. The reaction was often, "You egotistical son of a gun, you sound like you’re talking above people. Here comes the highfaluting guy, the Harvard guy."
"It was a learning process," said Allen, a veteran Chicago civil rights activist. "He recognized that and understood the criticism."
Obama was a state senator with just four years of political experience when he decided to challenge Rush.
It wasn’t all missteps. He joked about his unfamiliar name. He talked about building coalitions and bridging divides. He proved adept at raising political money.
But his campaign never caught fire.
Obama says now that it was "hubris on my part" to think he could oust an incumbent who had given voters no strong reason to be dissatisfied.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Obama dismissed the idea that he "was too Harvard or out of touch from the streets." He noted he had spent years as a community organizer in Chicago housing projects and running a voter registration drive.
"It wasn’t really a choice between two candidates. The majority of voters did not know that there was even an alternative, or they didn’t know the alternative," said Chris Sautter, Obama’s media adviser.
But others say Obama’s image and demeanor contributed to his loss.
Rush portrayed Obama, the Harvard-educated civil rights lecturer at the University of Chicago, as out of touch.
"He went to Harvard and became an educated fool," Rush said then in an interview with the alternative newspaper Chicago Reader. "We’re not impressed with these folks with these Eastern elite degrees."
Another opponent, state Sen. Donne Trotter, said Obama was seen as "the white man in blackface."
Rush and Trotter now endorse Obama. They did not respond to interview requests.
Chicago City Council member Toni Preckwinkle, an early Obama supporter, said, "I think he took a hard look at himself after that campaign and became a much better campaigner, more at ease on the campaign trail."
Obama tried back then to demonstrate that he was more than an ivory tower academic.
When black students were expelled from a central Illinois school for two years over a fight, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stepped in to demand a lesser punishment. Obama joined him — but only after Rush and another congressional candidate had already done so.
While Obama rejects the idea that he came across as out of touch in that race, he does acknowledge the importance of making sure black voters know him and feel comfortable with him.
He points out that he began his 2004 U.S. Senate race with limited support from black voters but managed to win them over. A poll one month before the primary found only 38 percent of black voters backed him. By election day, he had overwhelming support, getting 90 percent of the vote in some black areas of Chicago.
"I can’t just show up being black and think I’m going to get the black vote. I have to reach out and communicate my track record — who I am and what I care about," Obama said.
Polls suggest he still has work to do in the presidential race.
An AP-Ipsos poll last month found black voters were divided, with 40 percent for Obama and 38 percent for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the contest for the Democratic nomination.
The division remains roughly the same no matter what the voter’s education or income. But when voters of all races are polled, Obama trails badly among people with less money and schooling. Clinton has a 4-to-1 edge among all people earning $25,000 or less and a 3-to-1 advantage among people with a high school diploma or less.
During the summer, Obama visited Emerson’s Barber Shop in tiny Marion, S.C., and spent about 45 minutes talking to customers. Owner Emerson Hunt found Obama relaxed and personable despite his "Harvard preppie image."
Hunt thinks black voters aren’t flocking to Obama for two reasons.
One is support for Clinton, partly inspired by her husband’s two terms in the White House. The other, he said, is doubt that a black man can be elected president. The doubters are likely to embrace Obama if the first couple of primary elections show white voters will support him, Hunt predicted.
Beauty Turner isn’t so sure about that.
A longtime public housing advocate and community journalist in Chicago, Turner isn’t sure Obama is the right candidate for most black voters — and not because of doubts about whether he is "black enough."
"The man is black, OK? The man is black," she said.
Her concern is whether he’ll have the best policies to help the poor, to create jobs, support public housing.
"To me, that doesn’t have a color," Turner said. "That has a mind-set."