Obama's Cheering Section Ups The Volume

Barack Obama, with his wife, Michelle, and Oprah Winfrey, addresses the crowd at Sunday's rally in Columbia, S.C.
Barack Obama, with his wife, Michelle, and Oprah Winfrey, addresses the crowd at Sunday's rally in Columbia, S.C. (By Stephen Morton -- Getty Images)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Change. The word on which Sen. Barack Obama has staked his candidacy. A word that's peppered in all of his speeches and plastered around any Obama event. A word that attracts and enthralls and, in some cases, challenges. Change? What's going to change? Are voters going to change?

Melissa Green, 45, a native South Carolinian, has continually thought about it. Months before Obama came to Columbia with Oprah Winfrey, Green's son, 17-year-old Trenton, the senior class president of Lakewood High, pushed her to get to know Obama. Then she read Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope," and started closely following his campaign.

And change was on her mind Sunday afternoon as she arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium, fresh from St. John AME Church, where she is pastor, to watch Obama and Winfrey share the stage. Their audience of nearly 30,000 -- huge for a primary campaign -- was an ocean of mostly black faces like hers but also many white ones.

"I'd never seen a crowd like that here before, ever, in a political rally," Green says.

And that powerful little word -- change -- still was on her mind Monday morning as she got up in her home in the rural, mostly black town of Rimini, about 50 miles southeast of Columbia, on her way to teach at Manchester Elementary in nearby Pinewood.

She had planned to back Sen. Hillary Clinton. She wanted to vote for a winner; that seemed to be Clinton. She worried that perceptions of race would derail Obama's campaign, if not sooner, then surely later. But Sunday got her thinking. And Monday, she put her fears aside and declared herself "changed," saying, "I'm settled on Obama now."

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Obama, of course, isn't the only candidate selling change. They all do. Clinton bills herself as a "change agent"; at least that's what her husband calls her. If either Obama or Clinton wins the nomination, the change that's really certain is that some kind of glass ceiling -- of gender or race -- will be broken.

But the political season's a-changin', and for now it's changing in Obama's favor. As spring turned to summer and then to fall, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed less like an actual race and more like the coronation of another Clinton. Her lead in the national polls was commanding; less so, but still largely solid, was her dominance in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

At one point here in the Palmetto State, Clinton held a double-digit lead over Obama. And in a state where more than half of Democratic voters are black and nearly a third are black women, Clinton, for a time, was the candidate of choice among African Americans.

No more.

A Mason-Dixon poll on Sunday of South Carolina Democrats shows Clinton leading Obama 28 to 25 percent, well within the five-point margin of error, and Obama leading Clinton among blacks 37 to 21 percent. With polls in Iowa showing a three-way race among Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards, and Clinton's lead over Obama narrowing in New Hampshire, South Carolina's Democratic primary on Jan. 26 is proving all the more crucial.

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