Hopefuls Court South Carolina's Black Voters

At this early point in the 2008 presidential campaign, South Carolina's African-American voters get special attention from the Democratic presidential contenders. Churches, hair salons and barber shops are sure venues to stump for votes.

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Every campaign season has an it-group, voters that come to symbolize something important about politics and about the country. We've had soccer moms and NASCAR dads.

At this early point in the 2008 presidential campaign, South Carolina's African-American voters are one group who find themselves treated to very special care and attention from the Democratic presidential contenders.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: There are two places to catch Lisha Ydstie(ph) on the weekend: church or the beauty salon. And this year, she says, presidential candidates have managed one way or another to hit her up in both spots.

LISHA YDSTIE: We do have a lot of our political conversations in hair salons and barbershops, and that is very true. I think that's a part of our heritage as African-Americans. And we make our choices a lot of times based on people who come in to our comfort zones, and church for African-Americans is one of our comfort zones.

CORNISH: On this night, Ydstie's at Brooklyn Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, to hear Senator Hillary Clinton speak at a dinner for a voting rights advocacy group. The program opened with a black national anthem.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Lift ev'ry voice and sing. 'Til earth and heaven ring.

CORNISH: And Clinton spent most of her speech talking about the issue of voting rights.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, you're not invisible to the voter-education project and you're not invisible to me, and you will not be invisible to the next president of the United States.

CORNISH: Invisibility certainly isn't a problem for African-American voters this time around. Of the small group of early primary and caucus states, South Carolina is one of the most diverse, with black voters alone expected to be the majority of the Democratic primary vote. Competition among the Democrats is fierce enough that even in this Clinton-friendly crowd, there are plenty of voters up for grabs.

YDSTIE: I am trying to make a decision and that's one of the main reasons I'm here tonight. I want to hear...

BARBARA JONES: I've been looking, but I haven't made a decision yet.

ALBERT REID: All of them are very good; that may be the problem.

CORNISH: Neither Lisha Ydstie nor Barbara Jones(ph) nor Dr. Albert Reid(ph) have settled on a candidate yet, and they aren't alone. Clinton has the narrowest of leads over Barack Obama and John Edwards, but Obama has a slight edge when it comes to black voters.

Ydstie says black women in particular know there will be plenty of scrutiny over whether their votes will show gender trumping race or race trumping gender in votes cast for the front-runners.

YDSTIE: I think that's why I'm being so very careful about not committing early, for the wrong reasons. Race is an issue; it always will be. Gender is an issue and it always will be. But as an individual and as a voter, I want to make a conscious choice and decision based on what's best for my country.

CORNISH: Ydstie says she's seen several of the candidates in person through church activities, and there are piles of campaign leaflets and literature at the beauty shop where she gets her hair done. That's where Barack Obama's campaign has been waging an aggressive grassroots effort to reach black voters.

IVY SIMMONS: Hey, how are you?

NICHOLAS: All right.

SIMMONS: All right. What's your name?

NICHOLAS: Nicholas.

SIMMONS: Okay. I'm Ivy Simmons. We're here talking about Barack Obama right now.

NICHOLAS: All right.

SIMMONS: Yes, so come on in.

CORNISH: Obama campaign organizers like Ivy Simmons are out nearly every week visiting black barbershops and beauty salons. Simmons hands out bumper stickers, sometimes shows a short biographical video on the candidate. She's already won over Spencer Tindall(ph) of Spencer and Tom's Barber Shop in rural Manning, South Carolina. Customer Robert Levy(ph) says he's impressed.

ROBERT LEVY: I like Hillary and I like John Edwards, but I like Barack just a little better.

CORNISH: Tindall has Scotch-taped a campaign poster on the wall. In it, Obama is sitting in a barbershop chair a lot like the one Levy is sitting in now. Levy says he is pleased the presidential candidates are really reaching out.

LEVY: A small town like Manning, you didn't see too many big-time candidates coming to a little, small town like this.

CORNISH: And with less than 100 days before the South Carolina primary, it's clear the candidates know just where to find those votes.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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