Democrats all court a S.C. congressman

Clyburn backed Gephardt, might bestow coveted new endorsement today

Election 2004

New Hampshire

January 28, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Rep. James E. Clyburn's district director and a secretary are squarely behind John Kerry. A district aide and a close cousin are backing John Edwards.

But the South Carolina Democrat, hounded by presidential candidates hankering for his influential support ahead of this state's Feb. 3 primary, won't say until today at the earliest whom, if anyone, among the seven hopefuls he will endorse.

"I've narrowed it to seven," said a chuckling Clyburn, who has played coy for more than a week with close associates, family members and reporters over whom he will support since Richard A. Gephardt, his original choice, dropped out of the race last week after losing handily in the Iowa caucus.

Now that the New Hampshire primary is over, South Carolina - the first southern state to hold a primary - is viewed as a major prize and a must-win for Edwards, the North Carolina senator who was born here.

A statewide poll of 500 likely voters conducted over the weekend for WLXT, a Columbia television station, showed Edwards leading Kerry 20 percent to 14 percent, with Wesley K. Clark and Howard Dean each polling 10 percent and 36 percent of the voters undecided. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

South Carolina is also the first state where the African-American vote is a significant factor, so the outcome could resonate with black voters beyond the state's borders. They are expected to cast 40 percent to 50 percent of the votes in the primary, and some political observers say a substantial number of those voters - at least a quarter - are still undecided.

A nod from Clyburn - a six-term congressman who is the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus - could turn the race.

"The principal, most significant figure in this primary might be Congressman Clyburn," said Don Fowler, a professor of American history at the University of South Carolina and the past chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

"I don't know who Clyburn will endorse or if he will endorse another candidate. But he has a great deal of influence with African-American voters and with all South Carolina Democratic voters, for that matter."

Immediately after Clyburn announced in December that he would endorse Gephardt, his longtime friend on Capitol Hill, a sampling of voters by the Gephardt camp found that two out of three South Carolinians questioned said they were more likely to vote for Gephardt because of Clyburn's declared support, the (Columbia) State reported.

But Gephardt dropped out after finishing a weak fourth in the Iowa caucuses last week.

Almost immediately, Clyburn's cell phone begin ringing nonstop. One after the other, the candidates began lobbying for his support in South Carolina.

"They're still calling; I've heard from most of them," Clyburn said. "I have to be comfortable with whoever I decide to support. Comfortable enough to stand next to him in July" at the Democratic National Convention.

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