As polls tighten up in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats increasingly view South Carolina's primary on Jan. 26 as a decisive front in their nomination battle. The first Southern state vote is the last real chance candidates will have to build up steam before Super Tuesday just 10 days later, from which a nominee is almost sure to emerge.
All of which has intensified the candidates' courtship of the Palmetto State's most influential Democratic constituency: black voters.
For , that courtship will reach a crescendo in Columbia on Sunday when Oprah Winfrey sells Obama to a sold-out crowd. On a more grassroots level, his efforts wended their way through Charleston on Tuesday as his campaign orchestrated a strategic show of support from 130 influential black ministers.
But here's the thing -- in a key example of one nagging dynamic that has kept the Illinois senator from posting stronger gains in South Carolina, many of those ministers conveyed a curiously benign message of "unity," not urgency, that belied the increasingly divisive tone of his high-stakes battle with New York Sen. .
"As black folks come closer to the election, they will realize this country needs unifying. Obama is a unifying force," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a key Obama backer. "We're not against anybody. We're for a man we think brings a healing this nation needs," he added.
Lowery's "not against anybody" message is echoed by Obama supporters throughout the black community. With the glaring exception of, well, comedian Chris Rock, leading voices in the black community are torn between Obama and the loyalty they established years ago for Clinton and her husband.
Their message of unity -- somewhat surprising from black leaders faced with the first real opportunity to elect a black president -- benefits Obama in some ways. It helps him build support among white voters, some of whom would be alienated by a more divisive portrayal from his black supporters. But the message has apparently not done enough to help him mobilize black voters.
Just as Clinton has failed to lock up women's support because of her reluctance to emphatically play up her gender, Obama is struggling to convince blacks that they should rally behind the first viable black candidate for president because of his reluctance to embrace some traditional causes advanced by black politicians.
It hasn't gone unnoticed, even by some of his supporters. Last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who's backing Obama, penned a scathing column in the Chicago Sun-Times in which he said , not Obama, was the only Democratic candidate who has sufficiently addressed issues important to blacks, including Katrina recovery and the Jena Six case.
In South Carolina, polls show Obama does no better than break even with Clinton among blacks, who make up about half of the state's Democratic primary voters. Clinton offsets that tie by leading him three to one among the state's white voters. Clinton led Obama, 45 percent to 31 percent, overall among state Democrats in a Pew Research Center/Associated Press poll released Monday.
Nationwide, Clinton also has a higher approval rating among blacks than Obama, according to a poll conducted recently for AARP by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
What motivates black voters, pollsters say, is the same thing that motivates others: an overwhelming sense that Clinton is best-equipped to win next November. When South Carolina voters were asked in the Pew/AP poll who has the better chance to do so, Clinton leads Obama by more than three to one.
The dynamic is likely to resonate beyond South Carolina, especially in Super Tuesday states with large black populations like Alabama, California, New Jersey and New York -- states where Obama will need to do well if, as expected, the field narrows by then to two or three candidates.
In one of those states, Clinton has made inroads with black voters, in part, just by showing up with her famous and popular husband.
Dr. Joe Reed, president of the Alabama Democratic Conference, one of the oldest and most influential black political organizations in the South, said his group recently decided to back Clinton because she actively sought their endorsement. And, well, because she has the blessing of the former president, to whom blacks remain deeply grateful.
"Of all crimes, the worst crime is ingratitude," Reed said this week. "And if we hadn't supported Hillary Clinton, for some reason, then we were letting race become too much of a factor. And that's not something we should ever do."