By Dan Balz and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 26, 2008
CHARLESTON, S.C., Jan. 25 -- Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton raced through a final day of campaigning before Saturday's South Carolina Democratic primary, after a week of angry bickering and with the electorate here polarized along racial lines.
Obama looked to Saturday's vote in the first Southern presidential contest of the 2008 nomination season to rebound after disappointing losses to Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada, which followed his win in Iowa at the beginning of the month.
Late polls showed Obama (Ill.) leading Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), and veterans of Democratic campaigns in the state reported that Obama has the superior organization. A defeat here would represent a major setback for Obama heading into Feb. 5, when more than half of the pledged delegates to the national convention are at stake in tests in 22 states.
The recent focus on race has stirred considerable angst in Obama's inner circle, and as the primary campaign came to a close here, his effort took on a hurried quality, as though the candidate were eager to move past the controversies and arguments of the week.
Clinton left the state after Monday's rancorous debate in Myrtle Beach, appearing to play down the importance of Saturday's primary by campaigning in several states with Feb. 5 contests. Her advisers continued to try to lower expectations by predicting an Obama victory, but her packed schedule here over the final two days suggested she saw at least an opportunity to cut into his support.
In a round of morning interviews, Clinton sought to smooth over controversy about the role that her husband, Bill Clinton, has played here this week, calling on all sides to tone down their rhetoric while acknowledging that the former president had gone too far in his criticism of Obama.
"He gets really passionate about making the case for me," she said on CBS's "The Early Show." "He said several times yesterday that maybe he got a little bit carried away."
Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and won the state four years ago, closed out the campaign here looking to benefit from the fight between the two front-runners. Calling himself the candidate from the "grown-up wing of the Democratic Party," he appealed to fellow Southerners to keep his candidacy alive after his losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.
South Carolina drew a prime spot on the Democratic Party's nominating calendar in large part because of the size and significance of the state's black electorate. Early on, the primary appeared likely to be an intriguing competition between an African American with broad appeal to white voters and a woman with strong ties to the black community.
Instead, what has developed is an electorate polarized along racial lines. An MSNBC-McClatchy newspapers poll this week showed Obama with 59 percent of the black vote and about 25 percent for Clinton. Among white voters, Obama's support is barely in the double digits, with Edwards narrowly leading Clinton among the rest of the white community.
More than four in five African American voters said they have a favorable impression of Obama, but only about a third of white voters have a positive view of his candidacy. Big majorities of white voters give Clinton and Edwards positive marks, but fewer than half of blacks rated them positively.
The racial polarization concerns Democrats on all sides of the primary fight here, but it will not be clear until Saturday's primary results how the division might affect the campaign going forward. Obama has demonstrated clear appeal across racial lines, and his advisers -- and other Democrats -- expect that to continue in future contests.
"We'll see what happens when people actually start voting tomorrow," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "New Hampshire has taught us not to follow the polls too closely."
But polls showed Obama's support among white voters declining in recent days, an indication, his campaign conceded, that the Clintons' efforts to blunt his momentum may be working. Another frustration has been a recent uptick in support for Edwards. The shift, mainly among white voters, has come in part at Obama's expense, the senator's advisers said.
By any measure, this has been the toughest and angriest battle of the Democratic campaign. Monday's debate featured personal attacks and acrimonious exchanges, and Bill Clinton drew fire from Obama and his campaign for what they said are distortions of the Illinois senator's statements about another former president, Ronald Reagan.
The hostility peaked with a pair of radio ads, one aired by the Clinton campaign challenging Obama for a statement about Republicans being the party of ideas. The Obama campaign countered with an ad that said Clinton would "say anything" to win and would "change nothing" if elected.
They then pulled the ads and called for the second cease-fire in two weeks. But both sides remained on edge.
Obama advisers continue to seethe over what they consider a deliberate effort by the Clintons to distort his record. "If they're going to continue to make dishonest attacks, we're going to respond to it," said Burton, the Obama spokesman. Howard Wolfson, Clinton's campaign manager, accused the Obama team of trying to tarnish the former president. "What we've seen in the last week is a more overt, above-ground effort on the part of the Obama campaign and his surrogates to undermine the president. . . . I believe that is going to backfire because I believe he remains enormously popular. . . . That, to me, is a lasting effect out of South Carolina."
Both campaigns were looking past South Carolina even as they appealed for votes on Friday.
Clinton caught the Obama campaign by surprise by urging her delegates to the party's national convention in Denver to support the seating of delegations from Florida and Michigan. The Democratic National Committee penalized both states for moving their primaries earlier in violation of party rules. She said it is "important to send a message" to citizens that their votes count.
The Democratic candidates vowed not to campaign in Florida after the DNC sanctions. Clinton will attend a fundraiser there before the primary, a senior aide said, which does not violate that pledge.
Obama advisers saw that as an effort to boost the significance of Tuesday's Democratic primary in Florida, where Clinton has held a big lead in the polls. The primary is only a beauty contest -- no delegates will be awarded, because of the DNC sanctions -- but Obama advisers fear that Clinton could reap a public relations boost.
A much broader playing field awaits the candidates as of Sunday morning, but Obama's first stops after South Carolina will be Georgia and Alabama, two more Southern states with large black populations.
He plans to attend President Bush's State of the Union address on Monday and will then begin a new phase of his campaign. He plans to give a series of speeches that senior adviser David Axelrod said will address "fundamental issues of his campaign."
Those include Obama's call for unity and for a new leadership style in Washington, but he will focus increasingly on the economy, a pressing concern among voters, and one to which Obama has so far given only piecemeal attention.
Advertising will carry much of the load. The Obama team has made extended ad buys in Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, New Mexico, Tennessee and Utah.
"All the campaigns are trying to figure out how many states you can play in," said senior Obama adviser Steve Hildebrand. "This is the single most expensive Super Tuesday in history, and we all need to figure out where we put our resources and what we can afford."
Clinton will spend part of Monday in Boston -- Massachusetts also has a primary on Feb. 5 -- and then attend the State of the Union address. She is scheduled to end Saturday in Nashville, but it is not clear whether she plans to leave South Carolina before the polls close or stay later if her prospects are bright.
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut, with the Clinton campaign, contributed to this report. Murray reported from the Obama campaign.