WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Secret Service is protecting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, the earliest in a presidential campaign a candidate has had bodyguards assigned from the presidential protection force.

A senior law enforcement official said Thursday the decision to guard Obama was prompted by general concerns about the safety of a prominent black candidate. There was no direct threat, the official said, although agents had seen racist chatter on white supremacist Web sites.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the security issue. The latest of several black candidates for president, Obama is considered the one with the greatest chance of victory. He was born in Hawaii, the son of a white American mother and a Kenyan civil servant, and is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff authorized Obama’s protection after consultations with the bipartisan congressional advisory committee, according to Chertoff spokesman Russ Knocke and the Secret Service.

Obama, who frequently draws crowds in the thousands at campaign stops, requested the protection. Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren and Homeland Security officials said they were not aware of any threats to the Illinois senator.

Obama’s rival in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has a Secret Service detail that is provided to all wives of former presidents. Her husband is ex-President Bill Clinton.

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