The Peach State prepares for a political frenzy as a pair of January runoffs determine the balance of the Senate—and the shape of the presidency
GREENVILLE, S.C.- When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) strode into a shopping mall in Greenville, S.C., he wasn't hunting for sales. Instead, the Democratic presidential candidate told an energetic crowd of nearly 3,500 supporters packed into the atrium of Greenville Technical College: "All we're selling here today is hope, change, and a new kind of politics."
So far in South Carolina, those promises sell: While Obama trails Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) by double digits in national polls, he firmly leads Clinton and other Democratic contenders in South Carolina, an early primary state. Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard told WORLD that's significant for Obama: "If he can derail Clinton here, he can win the nomination."
Obama hasn't yet derailed Clinton in South Carolina, but he has widened the gap. According to a June 18 Mason-Dixon poll, Obama leads the state with 34 percent of likely Democratic primary voters. Clinton garners 25 percent, and John Edwards trails in third place with 12 percent.
That's a striking reversal for Obama, who trailed behind Clinton and Edwards in the state just four months ago. It's also striking considering Obama's first-quarter performance in South Carolina: The candidate visited the state fewer times and raised less money here than either Clinton or Edwards. (While Clinton raised $36,100 in the state, Obama brought in $31,811. South Carolina native Edwards hauled in more money in the state than any other presidential candidate: $186,109.)
At least part of Obama's success in South Carolina stems from the support of black voters, who make up about half of Democratic primary voters in the state. Recent polls show that black voters in South Carolina overwhelmingly favor Obama. (National polls show Clinton leading Obama among black voters elsewhere.)
But while gaining support from black voters is key to winning South Carolina and building momentum across the country, Obama's recent swing through the South proved the candidate is also determined to cast a wide campaign net, and capture as many votes from across the spectrum as possible.
Capturing votes in Greenville began with a vigorous campaign to capture names and addresses at a June 15 rally: Local attendees picking up free tickets for the event filled in contact information on a sign-in sheet. As they wrapped around the mall waiting to file into the rally, campaign volunteers distributed pens and asked attendees to write the same contact information on their paper tickets. When the doors finally opened, another set of campaign workers stood at the entrance, checking each ticket to make sure every person provided a name and address.
Once inside, supporters crowded into the mall's atrium, and began the long wait for Obama to appear. Two hours later, the sturdy crowd still stood shoulder-to-shoulder as the 1970s hit "Give Me Just a Little More Time" blared through stage speakers. But the tiring wait didn't drain the crowd's energy, and when Obama bounded onto the stage about 30 minutes later than scheduled, he met boisterous cheers and a sea of blue "Obama '08" signs.
The candidate also met a decidedly diverse crowd, with an even mixture of black and white supporters. In a preacher-like cadence, Obama told supporters one of his favorite parts of campaign events is "looking out on crowds of black folks and white folks, Asian folks and Native American folks. . . . It tells me that there is a hunger for change in America."
The senator struck a similar chord during his first campaign visit to South Carolina in February when he told a racially diverse crowd at the Columbia Convention Center: "Twenty years ago, nobody would have believed this crowd right here in South Carolina."
But Obama was mindful of directly addressing black voters as well. He loaded his half-hour stump speech with references to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, saying it inspired him to enter politics. Earlier in the day, at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in nearby Spartanburg, Obama sharply criticized black fathers who abandon their families: "Too many black men simply cannot afford to raise a family-and too many have made the sad choice not to."
The candidate called on more black fathers to be responsible, and the government to pour more money into inner-city neighborhoods entrenched in poverty. In a speech to black ministers in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, Obama called on the government to expand job programs and improve schools in low-income areas, and to provide more support to ex-offenders trying to find jobs after prison. He warned that a "quiet riot" of despair is simmering in black neighborhoods across the country.
Obama seemed mindful of another group of voters in Greenville as well: religious voters. The candidate spoke about his work in the 1980s with inner-city churches on Chicago's South Side to revitalize declining neighborhoods: "Our faith requires that we not just preach the Word, but that we act out on the Word."
When considering a run for the Senate, Obama said he did "what any wise man would do: I prayed about it- and then I asked my wife." When criticizing a lack of government services for veterans, Obama asked: "Whatever happened to the notion that I am my brother's keeper? That's not just in the church-that's in the government too." The religious-themed remarks drew "amens" from the crowd.
The candidate emphasized the central issues of his campaign as well. He drew one of the biggest applause lines of the day when he asserted that everyone in the country could have affordable health care "by the end of my first term as president." Campaign aides have estimated that Obama's universal health care program would cost between $50 billion to $65 billion a year, and say it would be financed largely by eliminating tax cuts that President Bush wants to make permanent.
Obama also decried the war in Iraq, declaring: "There will be no military solution to this war." The remark drew mostly cheers, but one ardent war opponent in the crowd interrupted Obama's remarks, shouting that he should vote to de-fund the war if he is against it. The senator pointed out that he opposed the war from the beginning, but didn't respond to the critic's call to vote down war funding.
Obama recovered quickly from the interruption, and ended his speech by assuring the crowd: "I believe our better days are ahead of us, not behind us." The senator then enthusiastically shook hands with clamoring supporters as the sound system pumped out Tina Turner's rock song, "You're Simply the Best."
The next few months will reveal whether Obama can convince a majority of Democrats that he's the best candidate. One thing already is certain: He will face a grueling battle against Clinton, who boasts a sophisticated campaign machine, and who is aggressively courting the minorities Obama depends on for votes. At a conference of 100 black ministers in Chicago in May, Clinton told the group: "I am not ceding any voter, anywhere, to anyone."