Alabama Candidate Tries Obama Coalition Style

By JEFF ZELENY, The New York Times

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — If Artur Davis wins the Democratic primary here on Tuesday, placing him within one step of becoming the first black governor of Alabama, he will have reached this milestone in the most improbable of ways: bypassing the hierarchy of the state’s oldest civil rights organizations.

In this combustible election season, asPresident Obama’s policies are fueling a fierce debate in midterm races across the country, there is a different test under way in Alabama. Can Mr. Obama’s coalition style of victory — winning over white voters before gaining support from black leaders — be replicated in the Deep South?

“Some people have said during the course of this race that this is a good idea, but Alabama’s not ready for it,” Mr. Davis said, rallying supporters at his campaign headquarters on Monday afternoon. “Some people have said, ‘maybe someday.’ Someday is the refuge of people who tell us to wait. Not someday, but right now.”

When Mr. Davis announced his plan to run for governor early last year, the president’s popularity was at its peak. Mr. Obama had won the state’s primary, and even though he suffered a 20-point defeat in the general election, the enthusiasm surrounding the arrival of the first black president added to the notion that voters in Alabama, too, might be ready for change.

Mr. Davis, 42, is among the nation’s new guard of black political figures. But since he was elected to Congress in 2002, he has often been at odds with much of the state’s black political establishment. He never sought — or earned — their blessing to run for governor. And the civil rights organizations that have long carried influence over many black voters in the state have lined up behind Mr. Davis’s opponent, Ron Sparks, the state agriculture commissioner, who is white.

Just as Mr. Obama tried to keep racial politics from splintering his campaign two years ago, Mr. Davis has tried to keep attention fixed on his plans to improve economic opportunities in the state. He has proposed to lift the state sales tax on groceries, force out-of-state timber companies to pay property taxes and rewrite the state’s Constitution, which has been in place since 1901, to streamline Alabama’s government.

Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, is prohibited from seeking a third term. Nine candidates — seven Republicans and two Democrats — are running in the Tuesday primary. The Republican contest is expected to be sent into a runoff election on July 13, but regardless of the winner, the party is likely to hold an advantage in the general election because only one of the last six governors has been a Democrat.

While the campaign features a litany of contentious issues, like bringing Las Vegas-style gambling to Alabama and requiring that state driver’s license exams be given only in English, the conversation on the Democratic side of the campaign is infused with race.

The leaders of the Alabama Democratic Conference, the Alabama New South Coalition and two other civil rights groups that endorsed Mr. Sparks delivered an ominous prediction that Mr. Davis, the only black candidate in the race, could not win in the general election. Several polls show that Mr. Davis holds an advantage, but Mr. Sparks has narrowed the lead in recent weeks.

“He’s gambled on the fact that he’d rather go for the white vote than the black vote,” Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, one of the leading black groups, told reporters after endorsing Mr. Sparks in May.

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