WHEN DEMOCRATIC vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden was greeting voters at a Northeast Philadelphia diner recently, he couldn't have expected what he heard when he slid into a corner booth next to Carolyn Bauer.
Bauer told a reporter that she'd told Biden she'd never vote for him or his running mate.
"It'd be disgusting to get a man named Barack Obama as president of the United States," she said. "No way!"
Her view is not unique.
During the April 22 primary, a woman emerging from a Newtown, Bucks County, polling place said to a volunteer in an Obama T-shirt, "So you actually voted for Buckwheat?"
While both comments were atypical of interactions at the diner and polling place, Democratic leaders acknowledge that there is discomfort among some white voters.
Obama's name and his African heritage are obstacles to the party's chances of capturing the White House, party activists are finding.
"I'm hearing a lot of people saying, 'He's too young, he's too inexperienced,' " said Philadelphia AFL-CIO President Pat Eiding. "What they're really saying is, 'He's black.' "
Mayor Nutter said that although Philadelphians have been voting for African-American mayoral candidates for two decades, "no one has ever voted for a black candidate for president in a general election, and what people don't understand . . . they fear, or they're at least nervous about."
While it's unclear how much Obama's race, name and background will factor into the election, party leaders say that they know what to do: focus on economic issues that favor Democrats, get Obama into white communities and make it clear that he has the enthusiastic support of Democrats trusted in white communities.
State Rep. Mike McGeehan said that he gets some racially based resistance to Obama when he canvasses his Northeast Philadelphia ward.
"I'm not saying it's rampant, but we come up against it," McGeehan said. "There's no denying it's a part of Northeast [Philadelphia] politics, and you're seeing it around the state and elsewhere in the country."
McGeehan said that things have changed a lot since he first ran for office in 1990. His opponents made fliers depicting him as best buddies with Wilson Goode Sr., the city's first African-American mayor, whom McGeehan had never met.
Voting in last year's mayoral election showed significant racial-crossover voting in the Northeast and other white wards (See chart, right).
And when Mayor Nutter appeared before a large, virtually all-white crowd at a Hillary Clinton rally at the Mayfair Diner in April, he was cheered as enthusiastically as Gov. Rendell.
Suburban Democratic leaders said that they see little overt prejudice in their interactions with voters.
"It's a factor. You sometimes hear code words," said Montgomery County Democratic chairman Marcel Groen. "But I think it's less than 10 percent of the voters."
How much will Obama's background impact voting this fall? Racial effects on voting are notoriously hard to capture in opinion surveys.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in June found that about 30 percent of those surveyed acknowledged "at least some feelings of racial prejudice," and 23 percent said that race would be somewhat or very important in their choice for president.
But whites in both categories were no more or less likely to vote for Obama than the rest of the sample.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported over the weekend that an AP-Yahoo News poll found that deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Obama the White House if the election is close.
The poll found that one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks - many calling them "lazy," "violent" or responsible for their own troubles. The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the presidential candidates in 2004 - about 2.5 percentage points.
Mark Sawyer, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics at UCLA, told the Daily News that those casting racially motivated votes against Obama might cite his inexperience, or say he's too arrogant, or too liberal.
"There's evidence that suggests whites perceive black candidates as more liberal than they are really are," Sawyer said.
Sawyer said that his analysis of a wide range of opinion surveys and other data suggests that Obama suffers "a gap of four or five points that might be related to race."
Obama campaign spokesman Sean Smith said that he sees almost no effect from his candidate's race.
"Voters in Pennsylvania want to see their candidates up close and get a sense of what they're made of," Smith said.
Mayor Nutter agrees. He said that when he first ran for City Council in 1987, he got only 17 percent of the vote in the largely white 21st ward in Roxborough and Manayunk.
After he won the seat, Nutter said, his support grew. In his 1995 re-election bid, Nutter won 64 percent of the vote against two white candidates.
"As people got to know me, and I provided service, race became less of an issue," Nutter said. "It's not like people didn't know I was black."
Both Nutter and Mayor Rendell said that they want to get Obama into Philadelphia neighborhoods.
"Philly is a place where people not only need to see you on TV, and know about your plans and your policies, they need to see you with their own eyes," Nutter said. "They need to know that you actually walked down 52nd Street in West Philly or that you were up on the Boulevard."
Nutter said that he campaigned actively for mayor in Northeast Philadelphia, and did well there.
McGeehan said that a key to success for Obama is good canvassing.
"I've said to the Obama people, 'Some people we're not going to change, because their beliefs trump every rational argument you can make,' " McGeehan said. "So the campaign needs to go out and identify their supporters, register them, and get them out on Election Day, and they're doing that."
Sawyer said that Obama's cause and race relations in America will be helped if trusted political and labor leaders in white communities talk about him and address racial issues.
"People are going to have to do that in union halls and community meetings, and do it explicitly, provide a safe place for people to express their racial feelings and concerns if they have them," Sawyer said. "I think there's a way we'll all benefit from this."
AFL-CIO leader Eiding said that he raises the issue directly whenever he can.
"When I'm talking in a union meeting, the first issue I put out is, 'In case you haven't noticed, Barack Obama is black,' " Eiding said. "Then I say, 'Now let's talk about your issues, your lives, your kids. Close your eyes and listen to what's being said in this campaign.' "
Eiding said that he urges other labor leaders to have such conversations.
"We need to do this one-on-one, not in rallies, not with megaphones," Eiding said. "I tell them they need to go to their members directly, let them hear about this from experienced people who know the issues."
Several Democratic ward leaders said that they're committed to convincing voters that Obama is on their side. But one, Lorraine Bednarek of the 64th Ward, said that she isn't even sure she'll vote for the Democratic candidate.
Marge Tartaglione, veteran leader of the 62nd Ward in the Northeast said that she'll bring her ward in for Obama. "If I say this person is good, they'll go for him," Tartaglione said.
City Controller Alan Butkovitz, Democratic leader of the 54th Ward, said that he's optimistic that he and others can deal with the issue of race.
"It's not the kind of full-bore racism you saw years ago," Butkovitz said. "It's become more nuanced, more complex.
"I don't think people feel entitled not to vote for someone because they're black," Butkovitz said. "So they may say he grew up in Hawaii, or he's an elitist. And once you get it in those terms, you can deal with it."
Groen sees a similar phenomenon among suburban voters.