Black vote looms large in S.C. race

Democrats: Presidential hopefuls promote their local endorsements and tailor their speeches in hopes of wooing a crucial voting bloc.

Election 2004

On The Campaign Trail

January 29, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORANGEBURG, S.C. -- Heralded by a spirited rendition of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" played by members of South Carolina State's nationally renowned band, John Edwards arrived at the traditionally black college in the state's midlands to talk about his kinship with the African-American voters he hopes will aid his presidential quest.

"I've seen the ugly face of discrimination," said Edwards, who was born in Seneca, S.C., a tiny town in the extreme northwest corner of the state. "I've seen young African-American children sent upstairs in the movie theaters."

As band members, their instruments on their knees, sat to hear his speech, the North Carolina senator declared that ending discrimination and poverty would be a high priority if he were elected president.

Altering his standard stump speech -- the one about two Americas, rich and privileged and everybody else -- to include race and civil rights references, was a recognition that blacks are the Democratic party's most loyal voters in a state Edwards has said is a "must win" for him. State party officials predict African-Americans could account for as many as half of the primary voters next Tuesday.

But while Edwards leads in two recent polls conducted here, he must fight off a fast-rising John Kerry, who yesterday clamed the endorsement of James E. Clyburn, a six-term congressman who is the state's most powerful African-American politician.

Kerry told reporters that he was "thrilled" Clyburn was supporting him, though the congressman made no formal statement yesterday. The effect of his endorsement can hardly be underestimated.

"Thirty-five percent of the population in this state is African-American. ... You don't have that in Iowa and New Hampshire," said Ike Williams, a South Carolina political consultant working with the Edwards campaign. "That 35 percent might tilt this primary."

Choosing South Carolina State, a land grant college founded in 1890, to be his first stop after New Hampshire was a calculated decision by Edwards, aimed at creating a firm base of voters in the African-American community.

While he gained a few more looks from voters here yesterday, he also didn't appear to lock up many votes.

"It seems like he is just saying what he thinks we want to hear," said Keith Karval, a 20-year-old student. "I'm not ruling him out, but I am waiting for the first candidate who I think is telling it to me straight. Don't tell me you want an equal education for all, but tell me specifically how you plan to do it so you can be held accountable later."

"He was very open about the racial situation and that is something that needs to be talked about," said Jacqueline Turner, 61, a clerk for the Orangeburg County Council. "That will play well here with black voters because living in the south, race plays a role in every aspect of your life. Don't forget, we live in a state that flies a Confederate flag."

With roughly 300,000 people expected to vote here Tuesday, up to half of them could be African-Americans, political observers say, and every candidate is looking for an edge for drawing the vote.

`First opportunity'

Edwards, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark have all drawn endorsements from key black politicians and leaders in this state.

New York Congressman Charles B. Rangel is featured in ads on black radio stations for Clark. Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt is on the airwaves backing Edwards. And Rep. John L. Scott Jr., a South Carolina state lawmaker, has backed Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who could win his first delegates here, has drawn support from some church leaders and has campaigned here hardest of any candidate.

"This vote has implications far beyond the state line," Clyburn said in an interview on Monday. "This is the first opportunity for these candidates to address a large African-American audience. And the way they perform here could well play out with how they perform with African American voters across the nation."

All the candidates are expected to be in Greenville today for a 7 p.m. debate that will be nationally televised on MSNBC.

No matter who wins the primary next week, recent history here suggests that whoever the Democratic candidate eventually nominate will have a hard time beating President Bush in November. South Carolina has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But Edwards said yesterday that it was a mistake for Democrats to write off the South in the fall campaign.

"The South is not George Bush's backyard, it is my back yard," Edwards said in his speech. "And I will beat George Bush in my back yard."

Besides adapting his standard speech to address black concerns, Edwards was eager to tout his southern roots. But Kerry, who is from New England, and has yet to spend much money in the state, is challenging him in the polls after two straight victories in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

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