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Politics & Government

In The Post-Obama Age, Democrats Look To Inspire Southern Black Voters

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The top Democratic presidential candidates meet at a forum in South Carolina this evening. The state is home to the first primary in the South and the first primary where black voters are key. African-Americans turned out in record numbers to support Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. The question now is, which candidate can capture that momentum? NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Anton Gunn was a former college football player working as a community organizer in South Carolina when he first met that other community organizer, Barack Obama. He was so impressed, he cold-called Obama and told him he would work to get him elected.

ANTON GUNN: He was a black man running for president. And as a black man, I just was inspired by that.

KHALID: Gunn had never worked in national politics before, but he joined the Obama campaign and, later, the Obama administration. These days, though, Gunn is over politics.

GUNN: I hear the clips of Donald Trump, and I hear the clips of Bernie Sanders. They just sound angry to me.

KHALID: He says he misses the real talk.

GUNN: People are so - so scripted and contrived. Nobody shares the authenticity that I heard in Barack Obama's voice.

KHALID: So I ask him, if he's so disappointed, will he sit out the election? And he says, no, no; he's going to vote. And he'll vote for Hillary Clinton, but he doesn't think she's reaching enough black folks in the right way.

GUNN: Where Barack Obama was different, you know, he did the NAACP dinner, but he also rolled up in a barbershop and sat in a chair and got his hair cut and talked to guys in a barbershop.

KHALID: So I rolled up to a beauty salon and talked to the ladies getting their hair done. Nivi Grimball is sitting under the hair dryer. She tells me a lot of people joke that Bill Clinton was the first black president, and Hillary doesn't have that kind of street cred.

NIVI GRIMBALL: I mean, she's likable, but I think Bill was just a little more personable than she is, you know? I mean, it's possible that she could get there.

KHALID: Still, in terms of this election, she's partial to Hillary. Brenda Barron chimes in. She's run this salon in Charleston for more than 20 years.

BRENDA BARRON: This election, I know I'm going to end up going with Hillary - I think because of the choices that's out there. The choices are limited (laughter).

KHALID: I ask her, what about Bernie Sanders?

BARRON: I don't know too much about him.

KHALID: And Sanders has acknowledged black people don't really know him, and he needs to do a better job introducing himself and his message. Baron may know who Hillary Clinton, but she says there just isn't huge excitement for her.

BARRON: The election eight years ago election and the election four years ago, I had a lot of clients that was campaigning. And I don't hear it now. I don't know of anyone that's doing it this year.

KHALID: Charleston City Councilor Keith Waring says there was an energy for Obama that he had never experienced.

KEITH WARING: I gave a number of times financially. And we asked others to give. I had never done that for any presidential candidate before in my life.

KHALID: Waring is 60. In his office, there's a framed copy of the front-page newspaper the day after Obama was first elected in 2008.

WARING: I guess maybe we want another Barack Obama, you know? And there's just not another one out there.

KHALID: Waring says he supports Clinton, and, in all probability, he's going to vote for her. But he doesn't feel that same spark.

WARING: With Barack Obama, it was new. The Clinton name isn't new. I mean, her husband ran twice. She ran once. So you get the feeling like you've seen this movie before.

KHALID: Folks here tell me it would be a different game if Joe Biden were in this race. One guy's analogy is that Biden was to Obama what Scottie Pippen was to Jordan. But Biden's not running, and so a lot of people here say Clinton will do. The question, of course, is whether being good enough can actually turn people out to vote. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.