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In South Carolina, black voters weigh in on Obama

Dahleen Glanton
Chicago Tribune

COLUMBIA, S.C. - As an African-American, Dean Stewart is proud that a black man has a good shot at becoming the next president of the United States.

He likes Sen. Barack Obama's style, his intellect and his compassion. In fact, Stewart said, Obama reminds him of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"He understands what he is up against as a black man, and he and his wife have said they are not afraid," said Stewart, 41, who owns a barbershop in Columbia.

Regardless of his admiration for Obama, D-Ill., however, Stewart is not sure he will vote for him next year when South Carolina holds its primary election. He also likes Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., the candidate he thinks has the best chance of winning the presidency and one he feels he has known for almost 15 years.

On Friday, Obama will travel to South Carolina for the first time in more than two years. While the rest of the country has elevated him to celebrity status, he is likely to find his greatest challenge yet in the South, particularly among blacks. Obama is not as well known as other candidates.

Votes for Obama won't come easily here, according to political experts. The South is home to the nation's largest concentration of African Americans - one of the Democratic Party's most loyal constituencies and some of the most dedicated supporters of former President Bill Clinton.

While Democrats traditionally are overpowered in general elections in the overwhelmingly Republican region, blacks will play a major role in primary elections in states such as South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. About 50 percent of voters in South Carolina's Democratic primary are black.

The Jan. 29 primary in South Carolina will be the fourth early contest after Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, which bolsters the state's role in the selection of the Democratic nominee. Among the Democratic candidates, early polls in South Carolina show Clinton with 34 percent of the vote, followed by former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina with 31 percent and Obama with 10 percent.

Black voters, in particular, have found themselves in a dilemma. Should they support Obama and possibly make history or should they support Hillary Clinton and bring back a team many feel was the most dedicated to black causes since President John Kennedy?

"In my district, people are going with Hillary," said state Sen. Robert Ford, a Democrat from Charleston. "I am sure there will be some young blacks who will be behind Obama, but elderly blacks are going with Hillary because they love Bill and they love Hillary for standing behind him for eight years."

Like many African Americans, Stewart would like to see what he considers to be a dream ticket, with Clinton as the nominee and Obama as her vice presidential running mate.

"It would be like the Super Bowl with Chicago and Indianapolis and two black coaches," said Stewart. "Either one is a winner."

Though more than 2,100 tickets for his appearance Friday at the Columbia convention center flew quickly, particularly on the predominantly white campus of the University of South Carolina, Obama is still relatively unknown to a vast number of voters in the state. Another 1,500 tickets were distributed for a town hall meeting in Orangeburg on Saturday.

"People down here don't know him, and South Carolinians in many ways are a difficult lot," said Cole Blease Graham, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina. "They like to see their politicians up close in the flesh, shake their hand and look them in the eye.

"Blacks will determine the winner in South Carolina, and if it came down to it right now, it would be Clinton because of the lack of exposure Obama has here," said Graham. "If Obama can win some attraction from whites and overwhelming support from black voters, he can beat Clinton."

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the House majority whip, announced this week that he would not endorse a presidential candidate. Earlier, Ford and state Sen. Darrell Jackson endorsed Clinton, saying she had the best chance of winning. The men were credited with turning out a substantial black vote for Edwards who won the state primary in 2004.

"I considered who I thought was best able to serve right now. The day after the election, who will walk into that office and be able to serve from day one?" said Jackson, who also serves as pastor of a 10,000-member Bible Way Family Life Center in Columbia. On Thursday, the Clinton campaign confirmed that Jackson has negotiated a $10,000 per month consulting contract with Clinton, according to the Associated Press.

"Sen. Clinton brings a Rolodex of people who have served well and a lot of it has to do with President Clinton. Most people view them as partners," said Ford. "People love Obama but they really love the Clintons."

Obama's supporters said people will love Obama too, once they get to know him.

"Sen. Obama hasn't even gotten to South Carolina yet and people are excited," said Anton Gunn, Obama's political director in South Carolina. "When he gets here and people have the opportunity to hear his message up close and personal, a lot of those who are undecided will be making up their minds."

Lachlan McIntosh, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that while there is excitement over Obama's visit, Edwards, who was born in South Carolina, draws big crowds too. Clinton also plans to visit the state next week.

"Sen. Obama is sparking the interest of a lot of people we have not seen involved in politics before, particularly young people," said McIntosh. "John Edwards has been here once this year and several times last year. We will find out Friday night whether Obama is as big as John Edwards."

While national polls suggest that race will not be a factor in Obama's bid, some analysts said it could come into play in the South.

"South Carolina is one of the most racially polarized places in the country and black people in South Carolina have never elected a black candidate statewide," said David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. "There are places in the South where people don't think anybody black can be elected to anything. So when they think about the presidential election, they don't think of Obama as someone with very good prospects."

State Sen. John Drummond, who at age 87 has been in the Senate for 42 years, said he has not seen much support for Obama. Right now, he said, the race in South Carolina is between Clinton and Edwards.

"I think (Obama) will do alright, but he is about four years off," said Drummond. "A few years ago, I don't think he would have had much of any support in South Carolina, but he has earned it. He's a rather attractive guy and I can see a lot of good down the road."

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