Friday, April 6, 2007

Presidential aspirant Sen. Barack Obama will get the best test of his strength with black voters very early in the 2008 election cycle as a result of South Carolina moving its Democratic primary up two weeks to Jan. 29.

And supporters of the Illinois Democrat say that as South Carolina goes, so will other states such as Alabama, Maryland, Georgia and Louisiana where black voters account for more than 30 percent of Democratic voters.

“I think Barack is going to win 65 [percent] to 70 percent of the black vote and get 30 percent of the white vote, which is a very good number in a multicandidate race, so he is going to win those states with a strong biracial vote,” said Rep. Artur Davis, Alabama Democrat.

Blacks made up 49 percent of the 280,000 voters who participated in the Feb. 3 primary in 2004.

“We wanted South Carolina to be early so African-Americans can be have a stronger impact on the presidential election,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn.

Mr. Clyburn, only the second black to serve as whip and the state’s highest-ranking congressional politician, won’t be endorsing any of the candidates, which makes the state more competitive. He said the black vote should not overshadow the other demographics that are in play in South Carolina.

“It is a relatively small state but a diverse one with what we have, manufacturing, agricultural, urban; … in that primary you can see how the candidate did with manufacturers, with African-American voters, rural and urban voters and the South,” he said.

Voters will be looking for a candidate who can make the state more competitive politically as well. The state is a Republican stronghold with only two elected Democrats in Congress and six Republicans as well as the governor. The Republican primary is set for Feb. 2 as of now.

At this point, every candidate has been to the state. Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Delaware Democrat, has been there repeatedly.

“Looking at the Democratic field, and just about everyone has been here. Hillary [Clinton] is still the Northern liberal. Barack Obama is intriguing to many people because he is new and exciting,” said Charles Bierbauer, dean of mass communications at the University of South Carolina.

He said there is no way yet to tell who might have an edge in the state. But that may change after the state hosts this year’s first national presidential debate April 26, when voters will have a chance to quiz all nine Democratic contenders.

Carol Fowler, vice chairman of South Carolina’s Democratic Party, said the war in Iraq and how it relates to the national economy will be major issues voters want to hear about, as well as the trends of exported manufacturing jobs.

“But education will have to be addressed when they come here,” she said.

“It is the biggest state issue, because in S.C. we have a number of school districts in poor rural areas that are in terrible shape with poor, dilapidated facilities, and we have trouble attracting new teachers.”

She said the race is wide open — “[Joe] Lieberman was leading at this time in 2003” — with a lot of room for change and for candidates to make inroads.

One can drive around the entire state — from Florence in the north, to Columbia in the center, down to Charleston at the southern tip, with a detour to Greenville to the west and Johnsonville to the east — in about 10 hours, making it easy to get to know the voters and their issues in quick order.

Mrs. Fowler said the candidates should be cognizant of what they are saying to voters in her state because it will resonate with voters outside of the state.

“South Carolina Democrats are not necessarily more conservative or liberal than Democrats in other places, but I think what candidates do and say here will have repercussions throughout the rest of the South,” she said.

That likely will be the case in the neighboring state of Georgia and maybe even Florida, she said, “… because their voters will look to what candidates are saying here as a message to them and compare that with what they say in their state.”

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