CHAPIN, S.C. — Ask a South Carolina Democrat who they favor to be the next president, and chances are one of two names will roll off their tongue — Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“Obama represents a change this nation needs desperately,” Veronica Albritton, a registered nurse from Columbia, said of the Illinois senator.
“I love Hillary. Any question you ask her, she’s got the answer,” said Jannitt Cox, a juvenile justice worker from Mauldin.
Six others are aiming to win the state’s primary on Jan. 29, but those two U.S. senators dominate press coverage and are winning the hearts of voters.
Mr. Obama closely trails Mrs. Clinton, of New York, in most polls. One survey of South Carolina voters done Thursday showed Mr. Obama beating Mrs. Clinton 31 percent to 24 percent, with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina nabbing 14 percent of the vote.
In what pundits have dubbed the “second tier” are Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
“We know one of them is going to be the next president of the United States,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.
The Obama-Clinton rivalry was clear as nearly 3,000 South Carolinians crowded into a municipal parking garage Friday night to eat 1,200 pounds of free fried fish and drink cold beer. Competing fans furiously waved signs and screamed, “Hil-la-ry” or “O-bam-a.”
One moment summed up the night for a few attendees of the fish fry, a long-standing event hosted by South Carolina’s revered Rep. James E. Clyburn.
The hopefuls made their way to the stage after greeting voters in the crowd. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards whispered as if sharing a joke, and the people packed into the garage went wild when Mr. Obama bounded on stage with a plate of fish.
He picked up the fried whiting with his hands and took a giant bite, simultaneously offering the plate to others around him. Only Mr. Dodd accepted, and both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards stood uncomfortably eyeing the fish as Mr. Obama grinned with his mouth full. A few observing the moment said it showed one candidate was in the spirit of the evening.
But Mrs. Clinton wowed the crowd, telling them that of all the events she’s attended “all over” the world, “I’ve never seen anything like Jim Clyburn’s fish fry.”
For his part, Mr. Obama adopted the role of the uniter, telling the crowd: “We’re not trying out for quarterback, but we’re all on the same team.”
For all their attempts, Mr. Edwards and the other candidates have not captured the imagination of many voters here, who say they are excited to nominate one of two firsts — either a woman or a black man.
When Mr. Clyburn, the House Democratic whip, introduced Mr. Obama at the fish fry, he said he is often asked whether “an African-American can be president.”