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Undecided voters watch Obama-Clinton fracas

Image: Former President Bill Clinton
Former president Bill Clinton speaks to a group of students at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. on Thursday. Willis Glassgow / AP
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It has now become fully a four-person race as the clock ticks down toward Saturday’s South Carolina Democratic primary.

Two married couples, the Obamas and the Clintons are battling it out over who should be the nominee.

Making the point that South Carolina has become a referendum on Bill Clinton was the e-mail from Michelle Obama that popped into inboxes exactly at the moment the former president started speaking Thursday in Walterboro, S.C. (population 5,545).

“In the past week or two, another candidate's spouse has been getting an awful lot of attention,” said Michelle Obama as she asked for a $50 donation to her husband’s campaign. 

“We knew getting into this race that Barack would be competing with Senator Clinton and President Clinton at the same time.… What we didn't expect, at least not from our fellow Democrats, are the win-at-all-costs tactics we've seen recently.”

'We don't play the fear card'
The Obama camp has adopted the tone of the victim who remains high-minded despite the injuries they feel they’ve suffered.

“We don’t play the fear card, or the race card or the anger card,” said Kevin Puleo, Obama’s regional field director as he tried to warm up the crowd waiting to hear Barack Obama speak Thursday night in North Charleston.

“I was convinced the American people were hungry for something new, they don’t want a politics that’s all about tearing people down,” Obama himself told the crowd later.

Obama told the crowd, “Some of my opponents say, ‘Oh, he talks pretty, he’s always talking about hope, he’s so naïve, he’s idealistic, he’s a hope-monger, it’s a fairy tale.”

One woman bellowed out from the crowd, “That was Bill!”

It was a reference to Bill Clinton’s calling Obama’s explanation of his stance on the Iraq war “a fairy tale.”

Eight hours later, Hillary Clinton in her interview on NBC's TODAY Show Friday morning, played two different hands simultaneously.

One hand: “Our campaign has to stay focused on the legitimate differences between us.”

The other: the Rezko card.

Who knew Rezko and for how long?
Clinton brushed off a photo that surfaced from the 1990s of her and her husband standing next to long-time Obama campaign fundraiser Tony Rezko, who is set to go on trial next month in Chicago on corruption charges.

Hillary Clinton attacked Obama’s relationship with Rezko to whom she referred as “a slum landlord” in the Democrats’ debate Monday night.

“I don’t know the man (Rezko); I wouldn’t know him if he walked in the door; I don’t have a 17-year relationship with him,” Clinton told Matt Lauer. “There’s a big difference between standing somewhere, taking a picture with someone you don’t know and haven’t seen since, and having a relationship that the newspapers in Chicago have been exploring.”

Thus Clinton tried to keep Obama’s link with Rezko alive as an issue.

Earlier Friday morning in an interview with CBS, she seemed to apologize for Bill Clinton’s uncurbed enthusiasm in attacking Obama.

“He gets excited; he gets really passionate about making the case for me. He said several times yesterday that maybe he got a little bit carried away.”

'Just a hired hand'
To a voter in Walterboro Thursday who asked about Hillary Clinton’s position on states’ workers’ compensation funds, Clinton said he didn’t know the answer. “I’m very scrupulous; I won’t say what her position is” if he doesn’t know for sure. Then he added, “I’m just a hired hand here” — which drew a laugh from the crowd.

Later he told another questioner, “I’m out of politics now.” 

Here in South Carolina voters have been paying attention to the four battling spouses. Janet Sawyer, an émigré from New Hampshire to South Carolina, who came to hear Clinton speak in Walterboro, said, “I’ve met Hillary. I really like her; she’s so darn smart it’s scary, but so is Barack; he’s as brilliant as she is. He has my heart and she has my head. The trouble is Hillary comes with too bloody much baggage.”

As for Bill Clinton, “He’s really messing things up here. I got ticked off at him at one point. He was not making Hillary look good. He should not engage in arguments with people.”

In his Thursday campaign stops Clinton was avoiding mention of Obama and sticking to his traditional approach: intense, data-heavy seminars in public policy. No politician loves statistics more or deploys them as often and as effortlessly as Bill Clinton.

“Hispanic Americans, given the same exact diet and the same exercise, are 1.7 times as likely to become diabetic as Americans of European heritage, African-Americans 1.8 times, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders two times as likely,” Clinton told students Thursday morning at Claflin University, South Carolina’s oldest historically black college..

His pitch for votes was at times subtle.

Hillary Clinton’s supporters among African-Americans in South Carolina mostly seem to be keeping their loyalties quiet.

OK to vote for Hillary
Clinton sought to reassure the students at Claflin that it was OK it vote for Hillary Clinton — despite any peer pressure to vote for Obama. “You can have arguments with your friends; you don’t have to agree with them, maybe you don’t even vote for the same people at election time,” he told them.

Was Clinton convincing South Carolinians to vote for Hillary Clinton, or was he a one-man extravaganza, worth seeing for himself, even if the voter in the end might decide to not vote for Hillary Clinton?

Nostalgia drove some of those who turned out to see Bill Clinton.

Eugene Allen, an Air Force veteran and former corporate executive, said he came because he wanted to catch up with him after 20 years.

Back in 1987 he heard Clinton speak at Claflin University and was so impressed that he urged him to run for president.

“He remembered that very well,” Allen said Wednesday after chatting with Clinton at Claflin.

Guarded about revealing their choices
South Carolina voters, far more than those in New Hampshire and Iowa, are very guarded when asked who they’ll vote for.

“I’m not really 100 percent, I guess I’ll make that decision when I go behind the curtain Saturday,” Allen said. Clinton’s speech “has not affected what I’ll do behind the curtain.”

Father Don Abbott, a transplanted Bostonian and a Catholic priest who is pastor of two churches, one in Walterboro, with a mixed, white, black and Latino congregation, the other in an area of Colleton County called Catholic Hill, which is all black, came to hear Bill Clinton speak Thursday in Walterboro.

Was he convinced by Bill to vote for Hillary? “Well, he convinced me that he’s a smart son of a gun. He’s always been the smartest president we’ve ever had besides John F. Kennedy.”

Between voting for Obama or for Clinton, “at this point I’m undecided. And when I get decided I don’t dare to tell anyone … I’ve listened to my parishioners in Catholic Hill, I’ve listened very carefully and not one of them has told me who they are going to vote for. People will surprise you. Especially here in the South you have to be careful who you tell what to.”