In S.C., Obama Seeks a Spiritual Reawakening

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- As a man not only of God but of politics, the Rev. Joe Darby is an outspoken observer of the campaign scene. Reclining in his cluttered office at Morris Brown AME Church here, he witnesses the union between the pulpit and the polls.

"Politics does come down to some degree of emotion . . . ," says Darby, one of this state's most prominent African American preachers, whose church is a magnet for Democratic presidential hopefuls. "The Democratic Party is just catching up to that. It's been nauseatingly safe in recent years."

As if from Darby's mouth to Sen. Barack Obama's ears, the Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois -- hoping his campaign can recapture some of that old-time religious fervor -- launched a three-city gospel concert series over the weekend across the state, in North Charleston, Greenwood and Columbia. Although Obama did not attend the "Embrace the Change" series in person (instead campaigning in Iowa), he was here in spirit, appearing by video screen and sending out his surrogates, such as pastor Hezekiah Walker and singer Beverly Crawford.

Obama's campaign could certainly use reenergizing. Since he announced his intention to run for the presidency, Obama -- and the powerful ebb that surrounded him wherever he woke, spoke, ate and sat -- seems to have withered beneath the supernova that is the Clinton campaign. Today, the senator from New York carries with her a fortified sense of inevitability, laughing off controversies while appearing on Sunday morning shows, showing no wounds from questions about fundraising, absorbing Obama's criticism over the weekend regarding Social Security. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Clinton leading Obama by more than 20 percent, with a lead of 13 percent among African American voters.

Those numbers mirror polling results in South Carolina, where any candidate hoping to capture this early primary state needs much of the African American vote. But Obama cannot presume such support as he tries to catch Clinton, who has been embraced by many black voters.

As Obama races after the Clinton juggernaut, trying to go on the offensive, some of the state's more prominent Democrats see him as "dinking-and-dunking" instead.

"What needs to be done, what we need to do now, is get these young folks re-fired up," says former state senator Herbert Fielding, an Obama supporter who works at the funeral home that his family has run since 1912. "And in the process of getting the youngsters re-fired up, it will dispel doubts in the older community."

But the first two concerts, in North Charleston and Greenwood, certainly are not testament to young people being reinvigorated by Obama. Yes, there are young folk who'll pose outside the events with the navy-blue Obama 'o8 shirts they've just bought from a makeshift Obama store, alongside tables with voter registration forms and volunteer sign-up sheets. But more often than not, the gospel concerts are populated with the retired and nearly retired, people who learned long ago not to take their right to vote for granted and so are perennially drawn to the polls.

"I support him," says Blondell Smalls, a 67-year-old retired home-care worker from John's Island, at the North Charleston event. "I like looking at him, and it's time for a change."

And Matthew Rivers, 70, says, "He's knows what to do. He's not going in there fumbling."

The events themselves seem to straddle a strange line between political pep rally and old-school revival. At the first two concerts, Obama appears by video offering his regrets for his non-attendance and thanking those who've come. At the Greenwood event, a video is shown that begins with Obama's convention speech in 2004 and then retells his life story. In North Charleston, a video display of a speech given by Michelle Obama in Iowa gives rise to calls of "You go, girl!"

(The gospel series also draws attention because of the inclusion of the Grammy-winning gospel singer Donnie McClurkin, who has publicly said he overcame his homosexual thoughts and desires through prayer.)

Each concert stirs some of the fervor that typified the Obama campaign in its early days. As the gospel acts perform, people rise to their feet, mothers hug daughters, old friends reach out to one another and then embrace strangers. Couples hold each other tight. Some close their eyes and sway in their seats. In Greenwood, most of the room is drawn to the stage, leaping up and down as if it were a mosh pit. The concerts' playbook was open to innovation. In North Charleston, the sister combo of Mary Mary recalled Beverly Crawford to the stage after her set, asking her to sing a few lines of her song "Praise Jehovah." The following night, with the show running long, Byron Cage did an impromptu set with a group of young liturgical dancers before he jumped from the stage to jam with the believers who had surrounded the stage.

"We've got the faith," Obama senior adviser Rick Wade tells those assembled on the first evening. "But now it's time to go to work."

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