Analysis: Obama wins big in S.C.


Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., responds to a warm welcome from the audience during a victory party in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:43 a.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Sen. Barack Obama proved in South Carolina on Saturday that he could not only endure everything the Clinton campaign threw at him in the most confrontational week of the presidential contest so far, but also that even in a Southern state he could draw support across racial lines.

Still, his victory came in large part because Obama was able to turn out significant numbers of black voters, a dynamic that will not necessarily prove as decisive in the 22 states that hold nominating contests on Feb. 5.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had 55 percent of the overall vote, Sen. Hillary Clinton had 27 percent, and John Edwards had 18 percent.

If the results buoyed the Obama team, it left the Clinton campaign facing a new set of questions. Her advisers' steady attacks on Obama appeared to prove fruitless, if not counterproductive, and the attack-dog role of former President Bill Clinton seemed to have backfired.

Indeed, surveys of voters leaving the polls showed that many Democrats who believed Clinton's role was important ended up voting for Obama.

Last week, Clinton advisers believed Bill Clinton was rattling Obama and drawing his focus away from his message. The results on Saturday indicated, instead, that voters were impressed with Obama's mettle and agreed with him that the Clintons ran an excessively negative campaign here.

"The criticism of Obama ended up really helping him going forward, I think,'' said Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, an influential black Democrat who remained neutral in the primary. "If he ends up winning the nomination, he will definitely face an onslaught of attacks this fall, and he may look back on South Carolina as the place that toughened him up.''

Clinton may have won the last two nominating contests, in New Hampshire and Nevada, but she is now left to decide whether she needs to reassess her strategy as the race shifts from a state by state battle to a national scale.

South Carolina voters showed little taste for the Clintons' political approach. They said in exit polls that their main concern was the economy; during an all-out campaign blitz on behalf of his wife here, Clinton spent the last week highlighting Obama's record on Iraq and his recent statements about the transformational nature of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Clinton's advisers were minimizing the importance of South Carolina even before polls closed, saying the primaries in Florida on Tuesday and in a swath of states on Feb. 5 were of more importance. But she will have to reckon with the rejection of her candidacy by black voters and the mixed support she received from white Democrats and younger voters here - two groups she must have by her side in order to build a cross-section of support in the coming contests.

"The Clintons will now have to deal with a perception of hollowness about her strategy, that she is leaving it to her husband to take care of things and allowing him to overshadow her political message,'' said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

Clinton also had trouble competing here with Edwards, the third Democratic candidate, who decisively won among white men.

Still, Edwards is now 0-4 in Democratic nominating contests. His electoral future is in even more doubt after South Carolina, his native state, where he emerged victorious in the 2004 primary as a presidential candidate.

The campaign now moves in several different directions for all three candidates.

Tellingly, Obama and Clinton were leaving South Carolina on Saturday night for two states that, like this one, have moderate political constituencies that do not often embrace Democrats in presidential general elections. Clinton flew to Tennessee to hold a rally with black voters in Nashville - and even delivered her concession speech there - while Obama was headed to Georgia, which also votes on Feb. 5.

South Carolina shows the sizable numbers of black voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee may boost Obama in the Feb. 5 primaries. His victory may stir fresh excitement among voters there and in his home state, Illinois, as well as in other places where he is building support, like California and even Clinton's political base, New York.

He also has bragging rights about a new coalition of support: About as many South Carolina white men voted for Obama as voted for Clinton, and 70 percent of white voters said they would be satisfied if Obama won the Democratic nomination, according to exit polls conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool of television networks and The Associated Press. More than half of black voters in the state said the country was definitely ready for a black president, while only about a quarter of white voters reached the same conclusion. By contrast, about one-third of both South Carolina whites and blacks said the country was definitely ready for a female president, the exit polls showed.

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