LAS VEGAS (AP) – A group of black politicians and community leaders launched a drive Thursday to help re-elect U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, less than a week after the Nevada Democrat faced criticism over comments he made in 2008 about President Barack Obama.

The effort, called “African-Americans for Senator Harry Reid,” was planned before a book revealed that during the ‘08 presidential campaign, Reid described Obama as a light-skinned African-American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

Reid apologized for the comments. Obama accepted the apology and called the matter closed. Democrats have since defended Reid’s record on civil rights and rejected calls for him to step down. Among those who have called for Reid’s resignation is Michael Steele, who is black and the Republican Party’s national chairman.

Reid’s comments add another element to his campaign, which has been dogged by low poll numbers in the Silver State and criticism over health care legislation.

Black supporters at Thursday’s rally in Las Vegas rejected the idea that Reid no longer deserved their support, saying he has already proven himself a trusted ally over many years.

“I think it’s totally ridiculous to question whether or not he is a racist,” said Bob Bailey, a longtime local civil rights activist who claims distinction as the first African-American in Las Vegas to hold a real estate broker’s license.

“He has stood by the black community for many years, and now it’s time to stand for him,” Bailey said.

In the 2008 election, blacks made up 10 percent of the vote in Nevada, and nearly all of them — 94 percent — voted for Obama, according to an Associated Press exit poll from Election Day.

The poll of 2,769 Nevada voters showed that in the Silver State, whites and minorities who said race factored into their vote split in opposite directions, with more whites favoring Republican John McCain and minorities favoring Obama.

The poll was conducted for the AP by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International, and was subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

Kenneth Fernandez, an assistant professor who teaches ethnic and minority politics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said Reid’s comments might not lead minorities to abandon the Democratic Party, but could make them even less inclined to show up to vote in a midterm election.

“It could have an impact on turnout and that, in the margins, could make a difference,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez said minorities and poor citizens turn out less often in midterm elections than in presidential elections. He said that while minorities might not dwell on Reid’s comments, they might feel disconnected from the white senator born in 1939.

Steven Horsford, the Democratic majority leader of the Nevada Senate, said minorities will show up for Reid because of his personal connection with Obama, and his powerful position as the top-ranking U.S. senator.

Bailey, who wrote about his involvement in Nevada civil rights in his 2009 memoir, said he thought Reid’s comments wouldn’t make minorities want to forgo their personal right to vote.

“We will show Las Vegas and Nevada that we make our choices in an intelligent manner, and loyalty to those who stand by us in a consistent manner over the years,” he said.