CHARLESTON, S.C. – Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton raced through a final day of campaigning in advance of today’s South Carolina primary, after a week of angry bickering and with the electorate here polarized along racial lines.
Obama looked to today’s vote in the first Southern primary of the 2008 nomination season to rebound after disappointing losses to Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada, which followed his win in Iowa at the beginning of the month.
Late polls showed Illinois’ Obama leading Clinton, of New York, and former N.C. Sen. John Edwards, and veterans of Democratic campaigns in the state reported that Obama has the superior organization. A defeat here would represent a major setback for Obama heading into Feb. 5, when more than half of the pledged delegates to the national convention are at stake in contests in 22 states.
The recent focus on race has stirred angst in Obama’s inner circle, and as the primary campaign came to a close here, his effort took on a hurried quality, as if the candidate were eager to move past the controversies and arguments of the week.
Clinton left the state after Monday’s rancorous debate in Myrtle Beach, appearing to play down the importance of today’s primary by campaigning in several states with Feb. 5 contests. Her advisers continued to try to lower expectations by predicting an Obama victory, but her packed schedule here over the final two days suggested she saw at least an opportunity to cut into Obama’s support.
In a round of morning interviews, Clinton sought to smooth over controversy about the role that her husband, Bill Clinton, has played here this week, calling on all sides to tone down their rhetoric while acknowledging that the former president had gone too far in his criticism of Obama.
“He gets really passionate about making the case for me,” she said on CBS’ “The Early Show.” “He said several times yesterday that maybe he got a little bit carried away.”
Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and won the state four years ago, closed out the campaign here looking to benefit from the fight between the two front-runners. Calling himself the candidate from the “grown-up wing of the Democratic Party,” Edwards appealed to fellow Southerners to keep his candidacy alive after losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
South Carolina drew a prime spot on the Democratic Party’s nominating calendar in large part because of the size and significance of the state’s black electorate. Early on, the primary appeared likely to be an intriguing competition between an African American with broad appeal to white voters and a woman with strong ties to the black community.
Instead, what has developed is an electorate polarized along racial lines. An MSNBC-McClatchy newspapers poll this week showed Obama with 59 percent of the black vote to about 25 percent for Clinton. Among white voters, Obama’s support is barely in double digits, with Edwards narrowly leading Clinton among the rest of the white community.
The racial polarization concerns Democrats on all sides of the primary fight here, but it will not be clear until today’s primary results how the division might affect the campaign going forward. Obama has demonstrated clear appeal across racial lines, and his advisers – and other Democrats – expect that to continue in future contests.
“We’ll see what happens when people actually start voting tomorrow,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. “New Hampshire has taught us not to follow the polls too closely.”
But polls showed Obama’s support among white voters declining in recent days, an indication, his campaign conceded, that the Clintons’ efforts to blunt his momentum may be working. Another frustration has been a recent uptick in support for Edwards. The shift, mainly among white voters, has come in part at Obama’s expense, the senator’s advisers said.
By any measure, this has been the toughest and angriest battle of the Democratic campaign. Monday’s debate featured personal attacks and acrimonious exchanges, and Bill Clinton drew fire from Obama and his campaign for what they said are distortions of the Illinois senator’s statements about another former president, Ronald Reagan.
The hostility peaked with a pair of radio ads, one aired by the Clinton campaign challenging Obama for a statement about Republicans being the party of ideas. The Obama campaign countered with a response ad that said Clinton would “say anything” to win and “change nothing” if elected.
Both then pulled back from the brink, taking down the ads and calling for the second cease-fire in two weeks.