Obama goes to the Apollo, and Harlem will hear about the G.O.P. debate in North Charleston, too

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The Apollo Theater. (apollotheater.org)
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On Thursday night, after an evening event at the home of Spike Lee, President Obama will host a star-studded concert at the Apollo Theater, headlined by Al Green and India.Arie.

At the same time, the president's potential Republican challengers will be in North Charleston, S.C., holding their 17th debate.

According to State Senator Bill Perkins, Harlem will be paying attention to both events.

"I can tell you there's a lot of conversation about this, especially after the debates," he said.

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"After a debate, get on the public transportation, you get on a bus in Harlem—get on the 7 bus or the number 2 bus, or get on the subway, get on the 8th Avenue subway—or just walk across 125th Street and engage a conversation. People are watching this. Because they know the other team is outrageous, in terms of some of the racial remarks they make, some of the insensitivities they have about race and class. And so, there's a lot of chatter."

What Perkins is getting at is the idea that the Republican presidential candidates, whose primary has dominated national political coverage for the past few months, are rallying Barack Obama's African-American base as effectively as the president himself is managing to.

"The great thing is that the other side, in their way, is underscoring how important he is to Harlem and the Harlems of this country," said Perkins, who was an early backer of Obama in 2008, when vast majority of New York's Democratic establishment was lined up behind the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. "Some of the remarks that are coming out in the campaign, sort of racially tainted—people are pissed off about that, if I can put it so frankly. So that's making it clear how important this re-election is. The alternative is making it clear how horrible they will be."

At a debate on Saturday night, Newt Gingrich beat back a suggestion from Fox News' Juan Williams that he was insulting black Americans by suggesting they "should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."

The debate audience in Myrtle Beach gave Gingrich a thunderous ovation, and booed Williams' attempts to follow up.

Perkins said the voters in Harlem got the message, too.

"They understand," he said. "You don't need a Ph.D. to understand this one. They may not understand all the policy debates that are going on in the sense of some of this stuff, but they know what resonates at home." 

During Republican-primary-debate season, Obama's support among black voters has indeed ticked steadily upward, at least in New York.

According to a series of Siena polls, 10 percent of the state's African-American voters said in October that they would "prefer someone else," rather than re-elect the president. By November, that number was down to 4 percent. Last week, it was at just 1 percent, with 99 percent of African-Americans saying they had a favorable opinion of the president.

"He's hot, as they say in the neighborhood," Perkins said.

Of course, polls can't predict how many of those people are actually going to turn out, and it's not necessarily the case that Obama's support among black voters in New York will be replicated among the African-Americans in swing states who provided crucial margin to Obama in 2008.

In September, a Washington Post poll found Obama's support from black voters slipping. But a December poll of 11 battleground states found 9 of 10 black voters were motivated to go to the polls, and 93 percent of them backed the president.

Perkins, certainly, thinks they'll be there, just like they were in 2008.

"There were lines hours long," he said. "It was almost like one of those third-world countries where people get a chance to vote for the first time and they're like 15 miles long. I've never seen lines like this before, even when Jesse Jackson ran. I think we're going to see a repetition of that, if not even greater." 

Perkins' message about Harlem echoes what the national party has been saying about the tenor and substance of the nomination fight on the G.O.P. side.

"Clearly the Republican candidates are defining the issues and the choice in this election," said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and prominent fund-raiser. "In the history of presidential politics, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern are mainstream compared to these Republican candidates. Newt Gingrich advocating overturning Supreme Court decisions. Mitt Romney advocating deporting 11 million undocumented workers."

The Obama campaign itself has juxtaposed announcements of milestones with what it characterizes as broad disappointment with the Republican field.

In a video announcing their latest financial filing, campaign manager Jim Messina touted the 200,000 new donors who donated in the four quarter alone.

"This enthusiasm is in stark contrast to what we've seen on the other side, where recent polls and studies show a drop in enthusiasm from Republican primary voters as they get to know their field," said Messina.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday evening showed that Republican primary voters were, in fact, disappointed with their current choices. Nearly seven in 10 said they were dissatisfied with the current field and would like more options.

(Though there is plenty of disappointment to go around, apparently: Among independents, only 31 percent said they had a favorable opinion of the president, and more than 60 percent said he not made significant progress in fixing the economy.)

In Harlem, where the president has visited several times since his election, and where the first lady recently visited a Police Athletic League center, Perkins said there's a personal connection.

"Folks feel like they know him," he said with a laugh. "That's the funny thing about this, you know, they talk like they know them. 'They grew up with me in the projects!' So there's a special connection people have in the neighborhood about this presidency and about this country and about what it translates to in terms of their daily needs."

Perkins said he would keep doing everything he could on behalf of the president, including traveling to swing states—like he did in 2008, when he went to South Carolina—and appearing at smaller, local fund-raisers for the president, like he plans to do tonight.

"The community folks are fired up," he said. "They're going to be fired up because they understand what time it is."