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Obama Tests Political Waters in South Carolina


Illinois Senator Barack Obama is making his first presidential campaign trip through the South. He's appearing in South Carolina, which will hold the earliest Southern primary of the 2008 election season. This weekend the senator's hosting big public rallies while behind the scenes he and other Democratic candidates are trying to win endorsements from the state's African American leaders. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Columbia.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Even in a state that's already hosted visits from more than a dozen people running for president in 2008, Senator Obama's rally here last night caused a stir. While other candidates have staged mostly small events at rotary clubs or barbecue joints, Obama appeared in one of the biggest meeting halls in Columbia. And he had no trouble filling the room.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you guys. How are you? It's so nice to see you. Thanks for coming, guys.

HOCHBERG: Obama spoke to a racially mixed crown of about 3,000 people. And he tried to draw parallels between South Carolina and Illinois, not so much Chicago, where he lives, but rural Illinois, which he visited during his 2004 Senate campaign.

Sen. OBAMA: Southern Illinois is the South. And when we won the primary, we won not just the black vote, we won the white vote. We didn't just win the Northern vote, we won the Southern vote. Let me admit, I was a little surprised myself.

HOCHBERG: In South Carolina, about half of the likely voters in the Democratic primary are African American. And Obama's speech was full of the inclusive rhetoric for which he's become known. It was a message that appealed to voter Yvonne Williams, who says she's already decided to support Obama in next year's primary.

Ms. YVONNE WILLIAMS: He's telling us to address what we have in common more than what our differences are.

HOCHBERG: How do you think that message will go over in the South?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think the South is ready. And I think there's more diversity here and there's more love and respect and I think he can win. I wouldn't be here if I didn't.

HOCHBERG: Still, among South Carolina's African Americans, support for Obama is far from universal. And several other Democrats are making strong efforts to win their votes. John Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the 2004 primary here, is lining up endorsements from black ministers. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd marched at an NAACP rally last month. And Hillary Clinton this week won the support of two prominent African American politicians. State legislator Darrell Jackson says he flirted with the idea of backing Obama, but decided the Illinois senator is not the best candidate for the job.

Mr. DARRELL JACKSON (State Legislator): I am taking him at his word because he's said publicly he wants no one to judge him on the color of his skin, but he wants to be judged on his readiness to be president. And I think when you line up a Hillary versus a Barack Obama, I know she's ready, day one, to be president.

HOCHBERG: Jackson, a pastor and public relations executive, endorsed Clinton and revealed that his PR firm won a contract to work for her campaign. And Clinton also won the endorsement of Robert Ford, one of South Carolina's longest serving black legislators. Ford said this week an African American at the top of the ticket would hurt Democratic candidates all over the country. And while Ford later backed away from that statement, Obama took note of it last night.

Sen. OBAMA: Everybody's entitled to their opinion. But I know this. When folks were saying we're going to march for our freedom, somebody said you can't do that. And they did it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: When somebody said don't sit at the lunch counter, we did it. I don't believe in this can't do, won't do, won't even try style of leadership.

HOCHBERG: Tonight Obama plans to announce a key endorsement of his own. He's scheduled to travel to Virginia to receive the backing of Governor Tim Kaine. And while it's unclear what effect these prominent endorsements might have on voters, the campaigns are eagerly touting them as early proof of their candidate's electability. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.
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