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Chicago Tribune: Democratic Hopefuls Court Hearts In Dixie

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Chicago Tribune: Democratic hopefuls court hearts in Dixie

By: Mark Silva

A crescendo of applause for a promise of better schools fills the crowded gymnasium where Sen. Barack Obama campaigns, but when Obama promises affordable health care for all by the end of his first term as president, the house comes down.

"What's missing is leadership, and the capacity of all of us to work together, regardless of race, regardless of region," Obama said Friday, in a booming, amplified voice. "We need to unify the United States of America. ... We need to bind ourselves together, not push ourselves apart. ... That's what this campaign is all about."

Obama had stepped into the center ring of a high school gymnasium set for political theater in the round: He was surrounded by a well-mixed crowd of whites and African-Americans -- nearly 2,000 people filled the gym.

In the heart of a historic yet segregated neighborhood of Charleston gradually growing gentrified, Burke High has struggled with failure.

Here in the storied state that will stage the first presidential primary election in the Old South, the January vote is more than a test of which Democrat might run well in a solidly Republican-voting region. It's also a test of support among a core constituency of the Democratic Party -- African-American voters, who will account for at least half of the vote in South Carolina's primary.

Neck and neck in survey

Two Democrats, Illinois' Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, have found strong support among black voters here, according to a recent survey for Columbia-based WIS-TV conducted by pollster Peter Hart. The April 9-12 survey of 801 likely Democratic primary voters -- 53 percent black -- found that Clinton is favored among 40 percent of the state's black voters, Obama among 35 percent.

And among all likely primary voters, the poll found, the contest at this early stage is a virtual Clinton-Obama tie -- 31 percent supporting or leaning to Clinton, 28 percent to Obama.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), host of an annual free fish fry that crams hundreds of people into a parking garage in downtown Columbia, played host to six of the candidates at a rollicking party Friday night.

"I think gender is going to play a factor. I think race is going to play a factor," Clyburn said of the coming election. "It's a very real possibility that an African-American could become president of the United States. It's a very real possibility that a woman could become president."

This is a state still debating a Confederate flag flying on the grounds of the old state Capitol in Columbia, though now it is beside a monument to Confederate soldiers, not atop the Capitol. A monument to the history of African-Americans also stands on the Capitol grounds.

Obama is drawing big crowds here. When he asked for questions or comment from the crowd Friday, this is the first comment he got: "Obama, Obama, you the man."

"I don't want all the questions to be that tough," joked Obama, allowing that he hadn't been in top form the night before in the premier presidential debate. "I was a little nervous, not so much because it was my first presidential debate, but because there was a 60-second time-limit on answers. ... My wife says it takes me 60 seconds to clear my throat."

Ascent of the accent

Clinton, a Chicago-area native who lived in Arkansas, has been ridiculed for using a Southern accent earlier this year in Selma, Ala., and in a more recent address to a civil rights group led by Rev. Al Sharpton in New York. But her accent is a virtue, she suggested Friday.

"I think America is ready for a multilingual president," Clinton said in Greenville.

The relentless racial issues here lent additional import to the first of the televised presidential debates this week, staged on the campus of historically black South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.

The flag was certain to come up, and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) responded adroitly when asked whether he agreed with the NAACP's recommendation that tourist groups and sporting events bypass South Carolina until the flag is removed from the Capitol grounds.

Noting that Clyburn, an African-American and House majority whip, had sponsored this debate at his alma mater, Biden said: "I think it's better to show off the incredible capability of an historic black college and all these incredible students here than it is to walk away from that opportunity."

Both Clinton and Obama have eclipsed John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who was born in South Carolina and carried this state's presidential primary in 2004, according to the WIS poll.

Edwards, a millworkers' son who became a wealthy trial lawyer and has campaigned on a promise to bridge the divide between rich and poor in America, finds himself fighting for his claim to his humble roots.

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