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Obama Tests Political Waters in South Carolina

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Obama Tests Political Waters in South Carolina

Election 2008

Obama Tests Political Waters in South Carolina

Obama Tests Political Waters in South Carolina

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is making a weekend campaign swing through South Carolina. The state's January presidential primary will be the first held in the southern U.S. and could provide a key test of Obama's viability with black voters.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is making his first presidential campaign trip through the South. He's appearing in South Carolina, which will hold the earliest Southern primary of the 2008 election season. This weekend the senator's hosting big public rallies while behind the scenes he and other Democratic candidates are trying to win endorsements from the state's African American leaders. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Columbia.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Even in a state that's already hosted visits from more than a dozen people running for president in 2008, Senator Obama's rally here last night caused a stir. While other candidates have staged mostly small events at rotary clubs or barbecue joints, Obama appeared in one of the biggest meeting halls in Columbia. And he had no trouble filling the room.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Thank you guys. How are you? It's so nice to see you. Thanks for coming, guys.

HOCHBERG: Obama spoke to a racially mixed crown of about 3,000 people. And he tried to draw parallels between South Carolina and Illinois, not so much Chicago, where he lives, but rural Illinois, which he visited during his 2004 Senate campaign.

Sen. OBAMA: Southern Illinois is the South. And when we won the primary, we won not just the black vote, we won the white vote. We didn't just win the Northern vote, we won the Southern vote. Let me admit, I was a little surprised myself.

HOCHBERG: In South Carolina, about half of the likely voters in the Democratic primary are African American. And Obama's speech was full of the inclusive rhetoric for which he's become known. It was a message that appealed to voter Yvonne Williams, who says she's already decided to support Obama in next year's primary.

Ms. YVONNE WILLIAMS: He's telling us to address what we have in common more than what our differences are.

HOCHBERG: How do you think that message will go over in the South?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I think the South is ready. And I think there's more diversity here and there's more love and respect and I think he can win. I wouldn't be here if I didn't.

HOCHBERG: Still, among South Carolina's African Americans, support for Obama is far from universal. And several other Democrats are making strong efforts to win their votes. John Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the 2004 primary here, is lining up endorsements from black ministers. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd marched at an NAACP rally last month. And Hillary Clinton this week won the support of two prominent African American politicians. State legislator Darrell Jackson says he flirted with the idea of backing Obama, but decided the Illinois senator is not the best candidate for the job.

Mr. DARRELL JACKSON (State Legislator): I am taking him at his word because he's said publicly he wants no one to judge him on the color of his skin, but he wants to be judged on his readiness to be president. And I think when you line up a Hillary versus a Barack Obama, I know she's ready, day one, to be president.

HOCHBERG: Jackson, a pastor and public relations executive, endorsed Clinton and revealed that his PR firm won a contract to work for her campaign. And Clinton also won the endorsement of Robert Ford, one of South Carolina's longest serving black legislators. Ford said this week an African American at the top of the ticket would hurt Democratic candidates all over the country. And while Ford later backed away from that statement, Obama took note of it last night.

Sen. OBAMA: Everybody's entitled to their opinion. But I know this. When folks were saying we're going to march for our freedom, somebody said you can't do that. And they did it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: When somebody said don't sit at the lunch counter, we did it. I don't believe in this can't do, won't do, won't even try style of leadership.

HOCHBERG: Tonight Obama plans to announce a key endorsement of his own. He's scheduled to travel to Virginia to receive the backing of Governor Tim Kaine. And while it's unclear what effect these prominent endorsements might have on voters, the campaigns are eagerly touting them as early proof of their candidate's electability. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)

At a Glance: Barack Obama

Chart the pace of the presidential race. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

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Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Barack Obama's first appearance on the national stage came in 2004, when he awed Democrats at the party's national convention in Boston. At the time, he was the Democratic nominee for an open Senate seat in Illinois — an improbable nominee, at that.

Obama declared himself "part of the larger American story" and said "in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

His story is, indeed, compelling: His white mother grew up in Kansas, his black father in a village in Kenya; they met and married in Hawaii. Obama became a community organizer and, later, a state legislator in racially divided Chicago. His victory in the 2004 Democratic Senate primary was considered a major upset. Only two years before, he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) in the Democratic primary and got clobbered. But when Obama spoke at the 2004 convention, many Democrats inside the hall and those watching on television saw Obama as the party's future.

Few, however, expected that future to come this fast. Since announcing his candidacy, Obama has given Democratic audiences the sense that he can rise above politics (and even race) and inspire hope. He has drawn huge crowds to his rallies. He has further cemented his standing as a viable candidate with his prodigious fundraising prowess. That his campaign kitty is comparable to Hillary Clinton's is especially impressive, considering the fact that the Clintons have been raising money for nearly two decades, while this is the first time on the national scene for Obama.

One criticism Obama has faced is his comparatively thin elections resume; he is running for president having spent just two years in the Senate. He responds to that by saying that he has not picked up the bad habits of people who have been in Washington too long. And he points out that in 2002, while still a state legislator, he was publicly speaking out against invading Iraq at a time when Sens. Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden and then-Sen. John Edwards all voted to give President Bush the authorization to go to war. Those senators are now his rivals for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination; all are now against the war.

Obama has been heralded widely as a "rock star." But as Howard Dean learned in 2003-04, early hype about a candidacy can certainly fade. Obama's staff has wisely managed to tamp down expectations of their candidate. But the nation has never had a serious African-American presidential candidate before, and the question of whether voters are ready to vote for one is not likely to be answered until the primaries and caucuses begin in January 2008.