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Obama's South Carolina victory

Sen. Barack Obama proved in South Carolina on Saturday that he could not only endure everything the Clinton campaign threw at him,  but also draw votes across racial lines even in a Southern state.
Image: Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., smiles as he approaches the microphone during a South Carolina primary victory party in Columbia, S.C. Saturday, Jan. 26, 2008.Steven Senne / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

Senator Barack Obama proved in South Carolina on Saturday that he could not only endure everything the Clinton campaign threw at him in the most confrontational week of the presidential contest so far but also draw votes across racial lines even in a Southern state.

Still, his victory came in part because Mr. Obama was able to turn out large numbers of black voters, a dynamic that will not necessarily prove as decisive in the 22 states that hold nominating contests on Feb. 5.

And his share of the white vote in South Carolina, 24 percent, was lower than what he drew in Iowa or New Hampshire, raising questions about whether race will divide Democrats even as the party shows tremendous enthusiasm for its candidates.

If the South Carolina result buoyed the Obama team, it left Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign facing a new set of questions. Her advisers’ steady attacks on Mr. Obama appeared to prove fruitless, if not counterproductive, and the attack-dog role of former President Bill Clinton seemed to have backfired.

Surveys of voters leaving the polls showed that many Democrats who believed that Mr. Clinton’s role in the campaign was important ended up voting for Mr. Obama.

Last week, Clinton advisers believed Mr. Clinton was rattling Mr. Obama and drawing his focus away from his message of moving beyond the politics of the 1990’s and the Bush presidency. The results on Saturday indicated, instead, that voters were impressed with Mr. Obama’s mettle and agreed with him that the Clintons ran an excessively negative campaign here.

“The criticism of Obama ended up really helping him going forward, I think,” said Congressman James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, an influential black Democrat who remained neutral in the primary. “If he ends up winning the nomination, he will definitely face an onslaught of attacks this fall, and he may look back on South Carolina as the place that toughened him up.”

In his victory speech Saturday night, Mr. Obama indeed sounded like a candidate with a cause, saying that the fight for South Carolina produced not only a personal victory but also progress over the divisive politics of the past. His target was clear enough without his naming names.

Yet the race is about to shift in a big way, moving from the state-by-state battle it has been to competition on a national scale. Mr. Obama has some opportunities in Feb. 5 states, among them Georgia and Tennessee, to win over large swaths of black voters as he did in South Carolina.

But like Mrs. Clinton, he will have to show appeal in a wide variety of states — some with liberal Democratic bases, including New York and California, and some more moderate, like Kansas; some with racially diverse populations, and some that are predominantly white.

The third Democratic candidate, John Edwards, seemed like a fading force on Saturday night, although he won decisively among one group, white male voters. While he vowed to go on after four straight losses, a major question is whether voters who might have otherwise aligned with him might choose between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.

Having failed to win even in South Carolina, where he was born and where he won in 2004 when he was running for president, Mr. Edwards faces the challenge of convincing voters that in going on he is doing more than just seeking influence within the party by amassing delegates that he can eventually throw behind one of his rivals.

Mrs. Clinton may have won the last two nominating contests, in New Hampshire and Nevada, but she is now left to decide whether she needs to reassess her strategy.

South Carolina voters showed little taste for the Clintons’ political approach. They said in exit polls that their main concern was the economy; during an all-out campaign blitz on behalf of his wife here, Mr. Clinton spent the last week highlighting Mr. Obama’s record on Iraq and his recent statements about the transformational nature of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers were minimizing the importance of South Carolina even before polls closed, saying the primaries in Florida on Tuesday and in the swath of states on Feb. 5 were more important. But she will have to reckon with the rejection of her candidacy by black voters and the mixed support she received from white Democrats and younger voters here — two groups that she must have by her side in order to build a cross-section of support in the coming contests.

“The Clintons will now have to deal with a perception of hollowness about her strategy, that she is leaving it to her husband to take care of things and allowing him to overshadow her political message,” said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

Tellingly, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton left South Carolina on Saturday night for two states that, like this one, have moderate political constituencies that do not often embrace Democrats in presidential general elections. Mrs. Clinton flew to Tennessee to hold a rally with black voters in Nashville, while Mr. Obama was headed to Georgia.

If South Carolina is any guide, the sizable numbers of black voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee could help Mr. Obama in the Feb. 5 primaries. And his victory Saturday may stir fresh excitement among voters there and in his home state, Illinois, as well as in other places where he is building support, like California and even Mrs. Clinton’s political base in New York.

He also has bragging rights about a new coalition of support. About as many South Carolina white men voted for Mr. Obama as for Mrs. Clinton, and about 70 percent of white voters said they would be satisfied if Mr. Obama won the Democratic nomination, according to exit polls was conducted by Edison/Mitofsky for the National Election Pool of television networks and the Associated Press.

More than half of black voters in the state said the country was definitely ready for a black president, while only about a quarter of white voters reached the same conclusion. By contrast, about one-third of both South Carolina whites and blacks said the country is definitely ready for a women president, the exit polls showed.

“Obama’s victory will leave him with some strong talking points — especially that he can continue to expand his voting base into a conservative Southern state,” said Professor Graham. “His team comes out of this able to say that he’s acceptable to white Southern men. And the Clintons come out of this facing questions about how their attack strategy seemed to fail.”