Obama, Clinton are top contenders in South Carolina
Former Sen. John Edwards was the third contender on the ballot, hoping to benefit from the acrimony between the other two.
South Carolina’s primary offered 45 Democratic National Convention delegates, as well as the campaign’s first indication of Obama’s political appeal in a state with a large black population.
Interviews with voters as they left their polling places indicated about half the electorate was black.
Half the voters said the economy was the most important issue in the race. About one quarter picked health care. And only one in five said it was the war in Iraq, underscoring the extent to which the once-dominant issue has faded in the face of financial concerns.
Roughly half the voters said former President Clinton’s campaigning for his wife was very important to their choice.
The exit poll was conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for The Associated Press and the networks.
All three contenders campaigned in the state on primary day, but only Obama and Edwards arranged to speak to supporters after the polls closed. Clinton decided to fly to Tennessee, one of 22 states holding Democratic primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5
The South Carolina primary marked the end of the first phase of the campaign for the presidential nomination, a series of single-state contests that winnowed the field and conferred co-front-runner status on Clinton and Obama, but had relatively few delegates at stake. That all changes in 10 days’ time, when New York, Illinois and California are among the states holding contests in a virtual nationwide primary.
Clinton hopes to become the first woman to occupy the White House, and Obama is the strongest black contender in history.
After playing a muted role in the earlier contests, the issue of race dominated an incendiary week that included a shift in strategy for Obama, a remarkably bitter debate and fresh scrutiny of the former president role in his wife’s campaign.
Clinton and Obama swapped accusatory radio commercials earlier in the week.
The former first lady aired an ad saying Obama had once approved of Republican ideas. His camp responded quickly: “Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected.” First she, then he, pulled the commercials after a couple of days.
Given the bickering, Edwards looked for an opening to reinvigorate a candidacy all but eclipsed by the historic campaign between Obama and Clinton. He went on the “Late Show with David Letterman” at midweek to say he wanted to represent the “grown-up wing of the Democratic party.”
That was one night after a finger-wagging debate in which Obama told Clinton he was helping unemployed workers on the streets of Chicago when “you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”
Moments later, the former first lady said she was fighting against misguided Republican policies “when you were practicing law and representing your contributor … in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”
Each side accused the other of playing the race card, sparking a controversy that frequently involved the former president.
“They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender. That’s why people tell me Hillary doesn’t have a chance of winning here,” Bill Clinton said at one stop, strongly suggesting that blacks would not support a white alternative to Obama.
Clinton campaign strategists denied any intentional effort to stir the racial debate. But they said they believe the fallout has had the effect of branding Obama as “the black candidate.”
By week’s end, one poll indicated that Obama’s support among whites in the state had dropped sharply, a danger sign for him in the rush of primaries and caucuses that begins on Feb. 5.