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."
* * *
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.
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.
"The tide has turned, the momentum has shifted to his direction. You can feel it, you can feel it in this state, you can definitely feel it among black folk in this state," says state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a fixture of South Carolina politics for more than 15 years. For months she's remained neutral in the race but now leans toward Obama.
"Look, black folk had to fight, had to fight hard, to get a vote in the ballot box. We're pragmatic," Cobb-Hunter continues. "For a while black folk here in the South couldn't imagine that white folk would ever vote for a black man. But white America can. And black America is realizing that."
* * *
"Oprahpalooza," as the weekend-long caravan was quickly dubbed, turned out to be the campaign event of the year, eclipsing the Clintons' first dual appearance on the campaign trail at the Iowa State Fair in July. Not only because of the sheer vastness of the crowd, but also because of its symbolism, in light of America's ugly racial history.
Here was Winfrey telling us about one of her "favorite things" -- and for the first time it's a presidential candidate and his name is Barack Obama.
It was the most influential woman in pop culture vouching for a man who could possibly be elected president. And both are black. But what's unanswered is whether Oprah's crossover racial appeal -- apparent from her media empire -- will bolster a campaign already pushing a racially transcendent message.
To witness the Oprah-Obama show up close as it traveled from heavily white Des Moines to heavily black Columbia was to see that crossover appeal at work. Surely, voters don't support Obama only because he's black, the same way Clinton's followers don't root for her only because she's a woman. Yet never before has a black candidate appeared to have such a strong shot at winning a party's nomination.
This is the moment when black and white voters in these early voting states are poised to answer some hard questions: Are we over race, that still uncured boil on America's psyche? Are we ready to break from our racial and racist past?
* * *
"I don't see race when I see Oprah, I don't see race when I see Barack," says Concetta Morales, 47, an Italian American who grew up in Long Island and moved to Des Moines in the late 1980s.
Over dinner at a Thai restaurant, Morales meets with Beverly Ellis, 62, a longtime friend. An hour or so earlier on Saturday in Des Moines, the two attended the Obama rally together with some friends. "I'm not going to lie, Oprah was part of the reason," says Morales, who subscribes to O magazine. The group was undecided before Saturday's event; Morales, for one, has been torn between Obama and Clinton for months. But watching Winfrey and Obama at Hy-Vee Hall might have cinched the deal.
"She's omnipresent, her magazine, her show, the books she recommends. She's so cross-cultural, so beyond partisanship," says Morales, a local artist and muralist. "Her supporting Barack means that she trusts his values."
Adds Ellis, a retired elementary school teacher whose parents are Polish immigrants: "I've been looking at Joe Biden and I've been looking at Barack Obama. When I think of Obama, I think of someone who's a change agent, someone who can lead change. Not just from the status quo in Washington -- you know, lobbyists having too much pull -- but from our history, our racial history."
Jason Jones couldn't believe the crowd downtown on Saturday afternoon. "I don't think Iowa was prepared," says the 24-year-old high school social studies teacher, a transplant from Kansas City, Mo. And he couldn't believe what he read and reread on the Dec. 2 front page of the Des Moines Register. Obama led the newspaper's latest poll.
Obama? Over Clinton? In Iowa?
"I don't want to come off like I don't have faith in America, but I seriously thought that Hillary Clinton had a better chance being the first woman president than Barack Obama being the first black president," says Jones, who is black.
"But after Saturday, I've told a couple of my friends, 'Obama really has a shot at this. He could really make this happen.' "
From Biden, Jones has switched to Obama.
* * *
The past, as William Faulkner once observed, never really dies in the South. It's somehow always vividly, brazenly alive. It wasn't until 2000, after years of protest from the black community, that the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina statehouse was taken down.
James Thompson, who's 63 and black, remembers a time when, right there on Highway 17 in Charleston, a service station had three bathrooms: one for white females, another for white males, and another for "coloreds," male and female.
Elizabeth Montgomery, who's 55 and white, remembers the first black kid she'd ever seen in her school, Kingstree High. His name was Thomas and "he was very quiet and very shy and kept to himself." She was afraid to approach him, she said. What would people say?
Thompson and Montgomery, both Obama supporters, attended Sunday's rally in Columbia. Both came because of Obama, not Oprah -- "though Oprah," Thompson says, "is icing on the cake."
Montgomery, of Pawleys Island, has been cheering for Obama since the night she watched him give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Standing in the living room, eyes fixed on her TV, she wept as she listened.
"There's not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there's the United States of America," he said. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." Montgomery, an elementary school teacher, was sold. Sunday's rally was her sixth time volunteering for Obama events.
At first Thompson, a retired credit administrator from GM, supported Clinton, but the more he heard about Obama, and the more he heard Obama speak -- on TV, on the radio, talking about Iraq, education, health care -- the more he admired him. Seven years ago, when President Bush was first inaugurated, Thompson watched the ceremony on television at his Greenville home. He sat with his only grandson, 5-year-old Jamal, on his lap.
"I told him he could be the president of the United States if he so desired. The sky's the limit. Anything is possible."
And now, there's Obama.
"Imagine," says Thompson, "they're calling him the future president of the United States. Imagine."