The Democratic presidential contenders spoke warmly of Martin Luther King Jr. _ and sometimes of each other, too _ on Monday's national holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.
In a ceremony on the steps of the state Capitol, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards addressed an annual King Day rally sponsored by the NAACP. Five days before South Carolina's primary, the first this year in which black voters will play a significant role, thousands of people stood shivering in the cold to hear the speeches. Many held signs in support of one or another of the candidates.
Obama won the loudest and most enthusiastic reception, but Clinton and Edwards were also warmly welcomed. Polls show the Illinois senator leading the field in South Carolina, a state he needs to win to remain a co-frontrunner with Clinton after losing contests in Nevada and New Hampshire.
Edwards has also staked his fading hopes on South Carolina, the state where he was born and whose primary he won in 2004.
Clinton is focusing her efforts elsewhere. While her campaign has invested significant resources in South Carolina, the New York senator plans to spend most of the week campaigning in states holding contests on Feb. 5, including California, New Mexico and New Jersey. She is to return to South Carolina Friday.
Bill Clinton, who is popular among black voters, is to spend most of the week campaigning for his wife here.
At the rally, Obama acknowledged his "outstanding competitors" but also bemoaned the divisiveness he says has tainted the presidential contest.
"Every day our politics fuels and exploits divisions across races and region, across gender and party," he said. "It's played out on television, it's sensationalized in the media, and it's crept into the presidential campaign in a way that serves to obscure the issues."
Clinton recalled hearing King speak in Chicago when she was a teenager, and implored voters to realize his vision of racial and economic equality by voting in Saturday's primary.
"The dream is nowhere fulfilled," she said. "Now we are called to rise up, speak up and finally get it done."
Clinton and Edwards both also praised Obama's pioneering candidacy.
"To be able to be on the stage in my native state with an extraordinary and talented young man who's running for the presidency of the United States and is African-American makes me so proud of my state," Edwards said.
The three candidates were meeting later in a nationally televised debate in Myrtle Beach.
The morning began with a six-block march to the Capitol. All three candidates had been expected to participate, but Clinton and Edwards missed it. Obama was loudly cheered as he made his way through the crowd.
Bush honors King legacy
In Washington, President Bush hailed King as a towering figure and called on the country to honor his legacy by showing compassion to those in need.
"It's fitting that we honor his service and his courage and his vision," Bush said during a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with first lady Laura Bush.
The president said that the federal holiday in King's memory is "an opportunity to renew our deep desire for America to be a land of promise to everybody."
Bush spoke after watching a small group of children at the library listen to a story about King's life.
The library is the main building of the District of Columbia's public library system. Its lobby features a colorful mural that depicts scenes from King's life and celebrates his role in the march toward social justice.
Bush has marked the King holiday in different ways during his presidency. Among other events, he has viewed the Emancipation Proclamation at a special showing at the National Archives, placed a wreath at King's grave, spoken at a predominantly black Baptist church and offered a volunteer hand at a high school.