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Clinton courts the black vote in Florida

Beth Reinhard
McClatchy Newspapers
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) speaks at the Joseph Caleb Center in Miami, Florida, Tuesday, February 20, 2007. (Robert Mayer/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/MCT)

MIAMI - Hillary Clinton chose Liberty City Tuesday to make her first public appearance in Florida as a presidential candidate, signaling that she won't forfeit black voters to Democratic rival Barack Obama.

The senator from New York and former first lady set an informal tone at the Joseph Caleb Community Center, fielding questions from community activists seated all around her. She reminded the crowd that she had visited nearby Charles Drew Elementary School 13 years ago, calling out to the former principal, Fred Morley.

"I've been to Liberty City before, so I am happy to be back," she said.

Clinton's visit to Florida also generated hundreds of thousands of dollars from private campaign fundraisers in Coconut Grove, Hollywood and Tampa.

Though two South Florida members of Congress - Alcee Hastings and Debbie Wasserman Schultz - endorsed Clinton Tuesday, Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, who hosted the public forum with her, did not join them. Considered a rising star in the Democratic party, Meek said he wanted his constituents to hear Clinton first and that he would make a decision soon.

"It spoke volumes to me that someone ingrained in politics in Florida since 1991 would come here," Meek said. "Usually, a stop like this in the black community is a month or two before the election."

But the 2008 presidential campaign is far from usual. State lawmakers are poised to bump up the presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the last Tuesday in January. That means Florida could, for the first time, play a make-or-break role in choosing presidential nominees.

Clinton's visit follows Florida appearances in the past few days by two Republican candidates, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Florida voters preferred Clinton over her Democratic opponents in a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

"But can we ever elect a woman?" Clinton asked the cheering crowd. "We'll never know until we try. I am proud to be a woman . . . but I'm not running as a woman candidate. I am running because I believe I'm the best qualified and experienced candidate, who can hit the ground running."

Clinton did not make any policy-related news Tuesday, repeating her call for universal health care and her opposition to President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. She also repeated her support for immigration reform that gives illegal workers a chance to become citizens.

"Let's bring them out of the shadows," Clinton said. "If they're criminals, let's deport them, but for all the others, let's give them a path to legalization. But don't let them jump the line over people who have been waiting legally."

Clinton responded to several questions of particular concern to minorities, such as the achievement gap between white and black students. When asked about helping poor people, she referred to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who cultivated widespread support among black voters.

"We're not talking about ancient history," she said of his administration. "We know what to do. We just have to look back a few years."

Clinton recently hired Mo Elleithee, who knows Florida politics from working on Bob Graham's 2004 presidential campaign and Janet Reno's 2002 bid for governor. Reno lost to Democratic nominee Bill McBride, whose failure to inherit her popularity among black voters was partly blamed for his loss to then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Clearly it is an important constituency, and we're going to spend a lot of time campaigning and talking to folks in the community and in every community," Elleithee said.

Several black voters who attended Clinton's hourlong event said they were impressed, though some acknowledged they faced a tough choice between her and Obama, campaigning to be the first black president.

"We're torn, but when it comes down to it you have to go with your heart, and I believe it will take a woman to straighten us out," said Beverly Bush, an AARP activist.

Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson said she hasn't made up her mind yet.

"As a black woman, at the end of the day, I will make the decision of who is best for my community and my country," she said.

Obama supporters said they are confident he will pick up more support among black voters in Florida and elsewhere as the race proceeds.

"Like every other segment of America you have to work for the vote," said Obama fundraiser Kirk Wagar, an attorney. "The numbers now certainly don't indicate where the race will end up."

Clinton has the advantage of having campaigned in Florida since 1991, when Obama was just graduating from Harvard Law School.

"They've done an event for every Democrat in Florida who's asked," said attorney Ira Leesfield, whose fundraiser at his Coconut Grove home raised $225,000 for Clinton. "They're loyalists, and that's why they engender as much loyalty as they do."

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