Democrats Head to South Carolina

Democratic presidential contenders are storming South Carolina on the heels of the Nevada caucuses. South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary is considered pivotal for both parties. For Democrats, next Saturday's contest is the first time they will see a significant African-American vote.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, Democrats will pay less attention to Florida. Their party is ignoring the state, saying it's scheduled its voting too early. For Democrats, the big focus instead is on South Carolina, which holds the other half of its primary - the Democratic half - this coming Saturday. More than half the voters on Saturday are likely to be African-American.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: South Carolina Democrats, especially black voters, are growing more and more aware of how much attention the nation is paying to what they will have to say on Saturday.

Reverend CHARLES JACKSON (Zion Baptist Church): I never knew until this year how powerful South Carolina is. I never knew how strong and powerful African-Americans are in South Carolina.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: Paper fans flickered in the pews and palms waved in the air as the Reverend Charles Jackson preached from the pulpit of Columbia's Zion Baptist Church yesterday.

Jackson was a guest speaker at a local NAACP commemoration, and he gave voice to the excitement and anticipation here over the Democratic contest.

Rev. JACKSON: The hands that once picked cotton are now in a position to pick the next president of the United States.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: Like most stories about Democratic politics in the South, this one starts in a church. Barack Obama spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the legendary church that once heard the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards will be back here at the Zion Baptist Church for another King celebration and march to the state Capitol building today. Right now, Obama is leading the race where Clinton once had the advantage here with black and white voters alike.

Last fall, a poll of black voters found that 40 percent did not believe whites would support an African-American presidential candidate. But Obama's strong performances in mostly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire have changed that.

Ms. QUEEN ESTHER DAVIS(ph): Six months ago, a lot of them would say oh no, we're not ready for a black president here. But a lot have come around and said, oh yeah, he's stronger than we thought he might be.

CORNISH: Church member Queen Esther Davis says that while her children and their friends have been big Obama supporters, her friends are just coming around. Shirley Levy(ph), a soprano in the church choir, says she sometimes feels the generational divide in the race.

Ms. SHIRLEY LEVY (Church member): I've been talking with several people. Of course I know the younger group, you know, who have been behind Obama. Because, you know, he brings new ideas, a new focus. And on the other hand, I think a lot of people are still indebted for some reason to, you know, Hillary also brings a lot to the table as well.

CORNISH: Supporters of Clinton includes civil rights heavyweights like Georgia congressmen John Lewis and Vernon Jordan and other surrogate African-American voices. One widely heard radio ad stars basketball great Magic Johnson.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. MAGIC JOHNSON (Former NBA Player): Whether it's winning championships or a president who can lead us back to greatness, I always want the most prepared and experienced person leading my team. That's why I'm asking you to join me in voting for Hillary Clinton.

CORNISH: Solita Jones(ph), who says she is not impressed with endorsements, is still weighing all three candidates. One thing she's certain of, however, is that she does not want to see a repeat of bickering that erupted between the Obama and Clinton campaigns over perceived racial slights.

Ms. SOLITA JONES: For me, I notice that especially in candidates, when it's election time and they really don't know what to say about race and they still say something anyway, just say the right thing and don't try to pacify us just because you're trying to get the black vote.

CORNISH: The Clinton and Obama camps may have called a truce over the issue of race. But the emotions over the controversies have yet to completely heal. The three Democrats get one more chance to reach out to a larger audience tonight in Myrtle Beach, where they will all participate in one more debate sponsored in part by the Congressional Black Caucus before the crucial primary takes place on Saturday.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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