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East of Charlotte, black voters illustrate Barack Obama's challenge

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

At a bus stop near an abandoned shopping mall 15 minutes east of this city's attractive and buzzing downtown, President Barack Obama's hope and fear sit 20 feet apart.

"You can't expect Obama to get in there and change everything in four years. I'll vote for him again," said Valhalla Davis, 40.

She has been unemployed as long as Obama has been in office but holds faith, even as she scrapes by on twice-a-week trips to donate plasma. "There's a job out there," Davis said. "It's coming; I've just got to be patient."

But Shamel Dove, also waiting for the No. 9 bus Monday morning, has lost interest in Obama. "He hasn't really done anything for me," said the 18-year-old, adding he had been out of work since his construction job vanished in March.

Davis and Dove are black and critical to Obama's chances at winning North Carolina, a state he captured by 14,117 votes, or 0.3 percent, in 2008, largely due to overwhelming turnout by African-American voters, who make up 22 percent of the electorate here. About 127,000 more black voters cast ballots in 2008 than in 2004.

Black voters are not moving to Mitt Romney — not one of more than a dozen interviewed Monday liked the Republican nominee — but if enough stay home, Obama is in trouble, which makes the state an intense battleground and is why Democrats chose Charlotte for their convention this week.

The city's downtown (actually called Uptown) is crawling with thousands of the most passionate Democrats from across the country. The mood is festive and by most appearances, people are prosperous.

Drive 15 minutes out of town, however, and a different picture emerges. In east Charlotte, where black barbershops now sit next to supermercados and taco shops that reflect a booming Hispanic population, there is a sense of gloom and disappointment that the first black president could not do more.

Statewide, the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent; in the black communities, it's 19 percent.

"I don't feel like (Obama's) even trying to achieve his goals," said Margues Grier, 22. "He might be, but it's not showing down here on our end."

His right forearm bore a light brown bandage, a familiar sight in the area. Grier had just donated plasma at a clinic that was filled for Labor Day, and he said the $25 helps him pay for bus fares and look for jobs.

"Most people wanted Obama because he's black," Grier said. "Now they see just because he's a black man doesn't mean he's going to be for black people."

Others were more forgiving, saying they had wished for more opportunity but placed blame on Obama's Republican opponents in Congress.

"If Romney wins, they are going to cut everything," said Preston Gibson, who works part time at Papa John's.

Today, the Romney campaign will announce black leadership councils in North Carolina and other key states, seeking to draw a connection with voters, as it did during the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week, featuring a trio of prominent black speakers, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. (Those efforts, Republicans say, are as much about attracting independent voters.)

Romney also sees an edge in the black community's more conservative views on gay marriage.

Obama this spring firmly came out in favor of same-sex marriage, drawing opposition from pastors who marshalled the black community to help pass a constitutional amendment in North Carolina defining marriage as between a man and woman. Romney's campaign has reached out to those pastors.

"That will hurt Obama," sighed Davis, who is a lesbian.

The Obama campaign is worried about voter ID and other restrictions passed in a number of states. In Florida, the Republican-controlled Legislature scaled back on Sunday early voting, a day many black voters have used to cast ballots. Last year, Republican legislators in North Carolina passed a voter ID bill but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

Democrats say the voter law efforts are designed to suppress the minority vote, a charge Republicans deny.

Romney certainly has to improve on the 4 percent of the black vote John McCain captured nationally in 2008.

A North Carolina poll the Charlotte Observer published Monday showed Romney had made no inroads in the black community, garnering 1 percent of the vote compared with 89 percent for Obama. Ten percent were undecided or did not answer.

Overall, however, Romney led Obama 47 percent to 43 percent in the state, underscoring how vital it is for Obama to maximize black turnout.

The campaign says it is sparing no effort, using its vast ground force to make personal contact with all types of voters. It is reaching out to churches and going on the radio. One ad, being played in states with large black populations tried to invoke the historic nature of Obama's 2008 win.

"Four years ago we made history," a narrator says over an R&B beat. "Now it's time to move forward and finish what we started together. We have to show the president we have his back."

Hoping to repeat the success of 2008, the campaign is turning to African-American barber shops and beauty salons as mini-campaign offices.

On Monday, Obama's Organizing for America held a voter registration drive outside Anderton's Barber Shop in northwest Charlotte. Kamaria Lawrence, 34, said she and other volunteers are trying to show black community members how the health care law and other policies enacted under Obama have been beneficial.

"We're not going to be able to get everyone on the team," she acknowledged. "But any individual who wants to vote will vote. Even if they are shaky about President Obama, they will come around."

Jackie Woodard, at a Burger King in east Charlotte, said he has come around and will vote for Obama again despite being out of a job for two years. But Woodard, 44, said pessimism runs high among his friends.

"A lot of people are saying, 'Obama's not doing what he's supposed to do, we're not getting anywhere. The economy keeps getting bad and bad and bad.' I still have faith in Obama, but they say 'Forget it.' "

Renac Miller, 41, also said he would vote for Obama again.

"The hole was so deep it takes time to reach the top of that hole," he said of the economy Obama inherited and saw deepen under his watch. "Obama is talking about my issues but I want to see more of the change he was talking about four years ago."

Times photographer Kathleen Flynn and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at leary@tampabay.com.

East of Charlotte, black voters illustrate Barack Obama's challenge 09/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 10:37am]

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