Black and White in the South Carolina Race

Conversations with voters in South Carolina reinforce suspicions that Sen. Barack Obama is having trouble attracting support from white Democrats. He has strong support among blacks, who make up about half the state's Democrats.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Barack Obama has opened up a lead in the polls ahead of Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina. While he has overwhelming support from African-American voters there, he's struggling to attract white voters.

Scott Huffmon, who is a political scientist at Winthrop University in South Carolina, said the explanation might seem obvious.

Dr. SCOTT HUFFMON (Winthrop University): You assume, oh, well, you know, a huge racial divide - you know, whites voting for white people, blacks voting for a black man. But it's really not necessarily like that.

MONTAGNE: Huffmon says South Carolina, like many southern states, has experienced a political shift in recent decade. White Democrats who leaned conservative have become Republicans. That means the whites who still call themselves Democrats are on average more liberal than African-Americans. They are traditional party Democrats, many low income and many fondly remembering the good economic times under Bill Clinton.

This is pretty much what NPR's David Greene found when he spent yesterday in predominantly white Greenwood County, South Carolina.

DAVID GREENE: The Dixie Drive-In, it's been an institution in Greenwood for decades. Scott McGreevy's family owns it. He is in the kitchen with rows of sizzling burger patties in front of him.

Mr. SCOTT McGREEVY (Dixie Drive-In Owner): We're famous for the Dixie Cheese half and half. It's a cheeseburger plate with half fries and half onion rings. It's made a lot of people fat in this town. It's a good fat.

GREENE: He's got regulars who come in and sit at the lunch counter every day, like Bobby Driver, an insurance broker. He's checking the front page of the local paper.

Mr. BOBBY DRIVER (Insurance Broker): The headline is Barack Obama says he is fired up and ready to go.

GREENE: The photo shows Obama in Greenwood the day before. But Bobby Driver says he's leaning towards voting for John Edwards.

Mr. DRIVER: I think he's a good guy. He's from my area. He grew up in the textile end of it. He worked hard. He doesn't like these big corporations which seem to be running the country. He may not get the nomination. It doesn't look good. But that's just - I'm just going to vote my conviction this time around.

GREENE: Another one of the Drive-In regulars is Curtis Wilson, 74 years old; spend his life driving a truck around the country.

Mr. CURTIS WILSON (Truck Driver): Not many roads I haven't been on.

GREENE: Now he is retired and he says he is driving towards one thing.

Mr. WILSON: Get Bush out of White House.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Wilson will be voting Saturday.

Mr. WILSON: And it will be for Hillary.

GREENE: Now, what about some of the others like Barack Obama? Are you thinking about him?

Mr. WILSON: I'm not ready for him yet.

GREENE: Why is that?

Mr. WILSON: I don't know. I don't want to say something that make you think it's a racial issue. But it's not - I just don't believe we are ready for him yet.

GREENE: What do you like about Hillary?

Mr. WILSON: Because she is Bill's wife. And I love Bill.

GREENE: What do you like about Bill?

Mr. WILSON: Everything he'd done. Except maybe a few things inside closed doors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: But other than that, I thought he made us a good president.

GREENE: It's the kind of summary of eight years in the White House that might make the Clintons wince, unless of course it's what gets them back there in 2008. Listen to people in Greenwood and you hear a lot of affection for the Dixie Drive-In, like this from Isabel Watson(ph).

Ms. ISABEL WATSON: A lot of people here met their husbands at the Dixie. I met mine at the Dixie - isn't that right, Barbara(ph)?

GREENE: Isabel Watson says she and her husband both like Barack Obama.

Ms. WATSON: He's been really good about, you know, talking about helping people. He - I think he worked in Chicago when - helping people that were losing jobs and that type of thing. Well, you know, I think he would have an idea, you know, of what happens to people.

GREENE: But what really motivates them is the issue of health insurance.

Ms. WATSON: Even as a first lady, I know she did not have anything official. But she was there, and I know she knew a lot that was going on. And she tried to do some things. Like all the first ladies take on something, you know, that they want to work with. And she was working with the health care. And I like that.

GREENE: This Saturday in South Carolina, and again in a score of states on February 5th, these are the memories Hillary Clinton is counting on to bring her victory.

David Greene, NPR News, Greenwood, South Carolina.

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What's at Stake in the S.C. Democratic Primary?

Supporters listen as Barack Obama speaks at a rally in South Carolina.

Supporters listen as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Orangeburg, S.C., on Tuesday. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
John Edwards sings "Amazing Race" at an event in South Carolina.

Democratic presidential candidate former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards sings "Amazing Grace," during a campaign event at in Bennettsville, S.C., on Wednesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

Did You Know?

  • South Carolina presidential primaries are conducted and paid for by the state's two political parties, not by state government, so they can choose to hold the contests on different days.
  • The South Carolina Democratic Party was not always so closely aligned with the African-American community. Through the mid-1940s, African-Americans identified more with the Republicans — especially since the South Carolina Democrats excluded African-Americans from its primaries until the Supreme Court decision of Smith v. Alright ruled that practice unconstitutional.
Former President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife.

Former President Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, at West End Community Development Center in Greenville, S.C., on Tuesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Win McNamee/Getty Images

Roughly 50 percent of registered Democrats in South Carolina are African American, with the majority of undecided voters being African-American women. Saturday's Democratic primary there will be the presidential candidates' first big test among this voting bloc.

It's unclear which Democratic front-runner will come out ahead: the first serious African-American presidential candidate, or a female senator with a family name that has always been popular among Southern blacks.

Here's a guide to what's at stake for the candidates in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday and the issues that will be on voters' minds.

Candidates: New York Sen. Hillary Clinton; former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards; former Arkansas Sen. Mike Gravel; Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich; Illinois Sen. Barack Obama

What's at Stake: Clinton won the last two early voting contests — in New Hampshire on Jan. 8 and Nevada on Jan. 19 — but in the latter state, she earned only 20 percent of the African-American vote. While she does have campaign stops scheduled in South Carolina this week, she is also spending time in California and New York, both of which are delegate-rich Super Tuesday states.

Obama has been leading in South Carolina polls, and he has also shown that he can transcend race to earn votes in predominantly white states, such as Iowa, where he won the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses, and New Hampshire, where he finished a close second behind Clinton. Several African-Americans voters have told NPR that this makes him seem more electable.

Edwards won the South Carolina primary in 2004. This year, he has had a hard time capturing the spotlight, particularly during Monday's Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., during which Clinton and Obama consistently traded barbs.

Issues: The economy is a major issue here; unemployment in the state stands at 6.6 percent, the third highest in the nation. The Northwest corridor of the state is home to some of the country's most successful high-tech manufacturers, including automaker BMW and several German companies, but other parts of South Carolina have been hemorrhaging textile factory jobs for years. The Iraq war remains a huge issue, along with health care.

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