Obama Leads Polls Ahead of Pivotal S.C. Primary

A debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, S.C., features Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. Five days before the Democratic primary in South Carolina, Obama leads in polls, having overtaken Clinton's early substantial lead. Black voters are expected to cast half or more of the ballots in Saturday's primary.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the three leading Democratic presidential candidates are at this hour taking part in a debate cosponsored by the congressional black caucus. The event is taking place five days ahead of the South Carolina's Democratic primary. It's the first state in which African- Americans are the focus. At least half of the ballots cast this weekend will come from black voters.

Earlier, I spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish who's in Myrtle Beach. She says Barack Obama has a lot to prove tonight.

AUDIE CORNISH: The last black candidate that South Carolina primary voters got to get a look at was Al Sharpton. And Senator Barack Obama is obviously running a very different race from that Sharpton approach in 2004. After his performances in Iowa and New Hampshire where he did very well with white voters, a lot of undecided black voters here who had questions about his electability, specifically questions about his appeal to white voters, are starting to reevaluate, and you've seen him perhaps rise in the polls as a result.

Now, the risk in this is that Senator Obama's candidacy and message has always been about unity. And there's been a lot of conversation about his candidacy being one that transcends race. So now, he's got to walk a tightrope - appeal to black voters in a state with a large black electorate and acknowledge that he wants their vote and court directly, but also still maintain the sense that he's transcending race and has a broad appeal.

BLOCK: Audie, Hillary Clinton had a lead among black Democrats in South Carolina not too long ago, and that has now dissolved. And we've seen in recent days of her campaign, especially Bill Clinton being quite critical of Barack Obama.

CORNISH: Yes, you have. Today, you actually had Senator Barack Obama actually making some complaints about President Bill Clinton and his attacks on the campaign trail. This is only just days after the two camps had tried to call some sort of truce about perceived racial slights and the comments that were being made out on the stump.

For black voters that I've spoken to here in South Carolina, there is some sense that are the Clintons squandering some of the goodwill they have with the African-American community and should they be a little bit more careful about how they go about dealing with Obama. At the same time, Clinton needs to make it clear that there is a difference between her and Senator Obama, especially for those undecided voters who perceive them as having somewhat similar stances and are sort of torn between the choice, perhaps, of supporting an African- American candidate or a female candidate.

BLOCK: Audie, finally, let's just talk a bit about John Edwards. He hasn't won or come close to winning in the early states. What's at stake for him in South Carolina now? This is the state where he was born.

CORNISH: Yes, well, for former Senator John Edwards, it's really interesting. One pollster described his position as, you know, trying to see a candle between two spotlights. It's not necessarily that voters here are uninterested in Edwards, but that they're really interested in the other two candidates. As a result, Edwards is still in the game, still says that he is pushing forward, and trying to make it all the way to the convention. One thing we'll see in the debate tonight perhaps is a little bit more insight into where Edwards is going with his campaign.

BLOCK: NPR's Audie Cornish in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Audie, thanks so much.

CORNISH: Thank you.

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