Raised Hopes in South Carolina
By Alec MacGillis
BEAUFORT, S.C. -- Following Barack Obama across South Carolina, it is hard to believe that just a few months ago, he was struggling with Hillary Clinton for the allegiance of the state's large African American Democratic primary electorate. Many black voters retained loyalty to Clinton and her husband, while others were wary of getting excited about a historic candidacy they doubted could succeed, or unsure how much solidarity to feel for Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and Kansan mother.
Such ambivalence is increasingly scarce. At one stop after another, in sleepy college towns and impoverished outposts of shotgun houses and all-but abandoned shopping plazas, Obama is drawing giddy crowds who line the road for a glimpse of his bus, cram high-school gymnasiums and engage in a jubilant, boisterous give and take with Obama totally unlike anything found at his campaign events in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has developed an easy, high-spirited rapport that is backed up by polls showing him drawing well over half of the state's black vote, which is expected to make up about half of the Democratic electorate.
But there is a hint of potential pathos in the spreading enthusiasm and expectation. Obama has pitched his candidacy as one that could transcend racial divisions, and his victory in nearly all-white Iowa seemingly vindicated his potential to do so. Yet a win in South Carolina on Saturday with overwhelming backing from the state's African-American voters but far less support from white voters could be taken as undercutting the promise of crossover appeal. (Yesterday, a poll showed him with 59 percent of the black vote, but 10 percent support from white voters.) It could also give his opponents a chance to argue that his win came as a result of the natural affinity of black voters for a fellow African American, and so would not be deserving of the momentum a win would normally bring. The Obama campaign began to push back at this notion Thursday by releasing a memo detailing how much time and money Clinton has put into trying to win the state.
Such considerations are not on the minds of many of the African American voters who are flocking to Obama's events and, depending on the demographics of the town, making up the bulk of his crowds. Audience members applaud so loudly they often drown out entire lines at a time of his speech, and sprinkle it with a patter of loud affirmations and impromptu interjections. (In North Charleston last night, a woman shouted out "Right on time, baby!" when Obama referred to those who say this is too early for him to run for president. A moment later, when he was recounting Clinton's response to being asked at a debate what her greatest weakness was, another woman shouted, "Her biggest weakness is Bill Clinton!") Obama feeds on the crowds' energy, pausing to laugh at particularly voluble or clever contributions, and talking back at the crowd much more freely than he usually does.
He has adapted his stump speech to reflect the familiarity his audience feels. He makes more references than usual to his church-going -- "I praise an awesome God" -- and places more emphasis on having been raised "without privilege," by a single mother. He talks more about the high rate of imprisonment than he did in other states. "If our children are driving past prisons that are new and schools that are old, that tells them something about what we value," he said in Kingstree. He avoids explicit mentions of the historic nature of his candidacy unless asked about it by audience members, but offers subtle encouragement for skeptics: "Don't let people make you afraid. Don't let them feed your doubt," he urged voters in Kingstree.
He loosens up his lingo as well, with just enough irony and self-awareness to avoid accusations of pandering. In Dillon Wednesday night, he smiled when an audience member cried out "That ain't right" in response to a disingenuous claim he said Hillary Clinton had made, and then he ran with it, telling the speaker that she had nailed it.
"That is not just 'isn't right.' That 'ain't right,'" he said with a grin. "There are some things that 'isn't right' but then there are some that 'ain't right.'" The crowd roared. "You know what I'm talking about," he added. Mocking a Clinton answer that, he said, smacked of Beltway-speak a moment later, he said, "In Washington, that's how they do." That got a big laugh, and he said it again with a grin. "That's how they do!" In Kingstree, he urged his audience to help with voter turnout Saturday by saying, with a smile, "I not only need you to vote, I need Cousin Pookie to vote. I need Ray-Ray. We need to get some folks to show up that haven't been voting."
The crowd loved it. As they filed out, Tarsha Mesith, 25, said it was momentous for the town to have a presidential candidate visit, and an African American one at that. "It's very exciting," she said, with her two-year-old daughter Ty'quisha at her side. "I was intending to vote for Hillary, but now he has my vote."
Web Politics Editor
January 25, 2008; 1:25 PM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton
Save & Share: Previous: Online Donors Rediscover Edwards
Next: Barnstorming and BBQ on Menu in S.C.
Posted by: Martinedwinandersen | January 25, 2008 11:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: davidmwe | January 25, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: Majorajam | January 25, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: sacred_ray | January 25, 2008 2:55 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: bobwestafer | January 25, 2008 2:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: zukermand | January 25, 2008 2:43 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: newagent99 | January 25, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse
The comments to this entry are closed.