Democrats Flock to Rep. Jim Clyburn's Fish Fry

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A key event surrounding the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina was Rep. Jim Clyburn's famous fish fry.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: a postcard from a fishing village in Oman. But first, the day after their full-pledged debate, the Democratic presidential candidates are still in South Carolina. That state's primary has been moved earlier in the calendar to January 29, just a week after New Hampshire. And whoever wins, South Carolina could get a boost going into the February 5th national primary - that's when big states like New York, New Jersey and California vote.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

(Soundbite of drum corps)

MARA LIASSON: A high school drum corps greeted the candidates as they entered the convention center in Columbia last night for the state Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

LIASSON: John Edwards who won the primary here in 2004, was surrounded by a large crowd of chanting supporters.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

LIASSON: Then Hillary Clinton came in, walking past the billboard-sized photographs of herself that filled up the lobby.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

LIASSON: And there was Barack Obama, who made a low-key entrance, but quickly attracted a large scrum as he walked down the hall.

Unidentified Woman #1: You're the man. You are the man.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I appreciate it. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Unindentified Woman #2: But the really important political event in South Carolina tonight is happening right here, less than a mile from the convention center in a parking garage. This is Congressman Jim Clyburn's famous Fish Fry, the kind of down-home South Carolina-after party. And right now, fired up South Carolina Democrats are doing the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

LIASSON: The drinks are cold and the menu is simple, fried whiting on soft-white bread with hot sauce and lobsters. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful black politician in the state and the only African-American member of the congressional delegation is the master of ceremony. Every Democrat wants his endorsement. And that's why so many of them show up at the Fish Fry. Last night, Clyburn got six candidates to squeeze themselves onto a stage the size the (unintelligible) van.

Unidentified Man #1: The governor of New Mexico.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson doesn't usually get to address the crowd this size on the campaign trail.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): Is it necessary to protect the president of the United States?

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: The ranking(ph) crowd of Democrats who jammed into the Fish Fry last night seemed to agree with Richardson. They're optimistic about winning the White House and very happy with their choices. Wilbert Cave(ph) hasn't made up his mind yet, although, last time he voted for the only native South Carolinian in the race - John Edwards.

Mr. WILBERT CAVE (Resident, South Carolina): Then the fact that we need to address the issue of poverty and his concern for rural America because that's where I'm from, rural America. Those things I like. I like all the others too. It's just exciting. It's really been a long time since we've had this kind of choice.

LIASSON: Cave reflects Democrats' sentiments nationwide. According to a Wall Street Journal poll, about three quarters of Democrats say they like the Democratic field; only about half of Republicans feel that way about their choices.

One of the most intense rivalries in the South Carolina race is between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Between the two of them, they represent the unusual demographic of the South Carolina primary. Fifty percent of Democratic voters here are African-American, 35 percent are white women. Not surprisingly, Obama has a strong poll for blacks here, including Jim Clyburn.

Representative JIM CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): What was I fighting for back in the '60s? What was I going to jail for? I was going to jail for people like Obama to be where he is and to do what he's doing. And so all of that's going to be going through my mind; it's been going through my mind already.

LIASSON: Clyburn has no plans to endorse any candidate anytime soon. But in Greenville yesterday where Hillary Clinton held a town hall meeting, Peggy Baxter(ph) had already decided.

Ms. PEGGY BAXTER (Resident, South Carolina): I made up my mind. I'm going to work Barack Obama. Where he not in the race, I would certainly see working for Hillary, but I'm happy he's there. I like what he's saying. And I like the way he's energizing young people.

LIASSON: For Baxter, race trumped gender.

Ms. BAXTER: In this situation, the fact that Barack is an African-American man - I had to line up with him.

LIASSON: But Hillary Clinton also has plenty of African-American support, including this 72-year-old man who reached for the mic at the town hall meeting.

Unidentified Man #2: We, in South Carolina, we love you and your husband.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Hopeful): Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: South Carolina needs jobs.

Sen. CLINTON: That's right.

Unidentified Man: South Carolina needs help, and you are the answer beside God.

Sen. CLINTON: Thank you, sir. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton's support in the African-American community appears to be strongest among older voters. Barack Obama is reaching out to younger blacks who may not have participated in politics before. And John Edwards is trying hard to recreate the success he had in his native state three years ago. And that means that over the next nine months, South Carolina Democrats will receive more attention than they ever have before.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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Civility, a Bit of Wit on Display as Democrats Debate

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Cordiality, not fireworks, reigned Thursday evening between ostensible frontrunners Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Stan Honda/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/Getty Images
Sen. Joseph Biden

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware provided the night's lightest moment with his response to a question about whether he could keep his infamous verbosity in check on the world stage: "Yes" was his one-word response. Stan Honda/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/Getty Images

The eight Democrats who want to be their party's presidential nominee appeared on stage at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on Thursday evening for their first debate in the 2008 race.

While the names of Sens. Hillary Clinton (NY) and Barack Obama (IL) and former Sen. John Edwards (NC) are quite familiar to most Americans, those of Sens. Joe Biden (DE), Chris Dodd (CT) and Bill Richardson (NM), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (AK) are not. The South Carolina debate, broadcast nationally by MSNBC, gave the candidates an opportunity to introduce themselves to that vast majority of voters who have not yet decided which candidate to back.

Not surprisingly, Iraq was the most discussed topic; voters say it is the No. 1 issue, and it was credited with giving Democrats their majorities in both the House and Senate in last year's elections.

Iraq is also what usually unites the Democratic candidates: All oppose the war there, all oppose the surge, and all oppose President Bush's stated desire to veto the spending bill passed by Congress that includes a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Nonetheless, divisions among the candidates could be seen. One long-existing fault line divides those who voted to authorize the war in 2002 – including Clinton, Edwards, Biden and Dodd – from those who did not.

Kucinich – who made opposition to the conflict the key issue in his 2004 presidential bid – voted no. Obama, who was not yet in the Senate but a member of the Illinois state legislature, spoke out against the war from the start.

Edwards has said his vote was a mistake, and he again apologized for it. But in what some see as an ongoing snipe at Clinton, Edwards insists that those who voted yes should concede the error of their ways.

"Sen. Clinton," Edwards said in Thursday's debate, "and anyone else who voted for the war, has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote. If they believe they didn't, I think it's important to be straightforward and honest. Because I think one of the things we desperately need in our next president is someone who can restore the trust bond between the American people and the president of the United States."

Clinton has long been a target of anti-war protesters because of her refusal to apologize for her vote. On Thursday, she again acknowledged that the vote was wrong.

"I take responsibility for my vote," Clinton said. "Obviously, I did as good a job as I could at the time. It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that, if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way."

Kucinich approached the issue another way. He said it is "inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war and, yet, you continue to fund the war. Because every time you vote to fund the war, you're reauthorizing the war all over again."

The award for angriest candidate went to Gravel, the former two-term senator from Alaska, who has mostly faded from the scene since his 1980 defeat for re-election. Emulating the Howard Beal character in the movie Network, Gravel gave a scathing assessment of his fellow Democrats, at one point saying their actions regarding Iraq and their rhetoric involving Iran "frighten" him.

Prior to the debate, much of the anticipation centered on how Clinton and Obama, the ostensible frontrunners for the nomination, would approach one another. But the two took a conciliatory and, at times, complimentary approach with each other.

At points, they referred to each other by their first names, in approving tones. Referring to Obama's plan for Iraq, Clinton said: "I think that what Barack said is right.'' Obama, in turn, alluded to previous comments from "Hillary" in regards to voters' "hunger for change."

Some of the more interesting moments came when NBC's Brian Williams, the debate's moderator, addressed embarrassing or difficult moments for the candidates. Obama was reminded of his ties to a donor accused of having questionable ethics. Obama said his campaign has thousands of donors and he has denounced that particular one.

Edwards was asked about the seeming contradiction between his campaign's focus on poverty and the "two Americas," and the $400 haircuts he billed to the campaign. Edwards said he had made a mistake, and he readily agreed that he is privileged. But, in repeating a theme from his 2004 presidential bid, Edwards reminded the audience that his father worked in a mill all of his life, and that he did not grow up with money.

"The reason I'm running for president," Edwards said, "is so that everybody in this country can have the same kind of chances I've had."

Williams wanted to know why Richardson was "one of the last" to call for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Richardson acknowledged that it was because Gonzales, like Richardson, is Hispanic, and he wanted to give the attorney general a chance. In another part of the debate, Richardson had to explain why he seems to be the favorite candidate of the National Rifle Association, and whether that comes at an awkward time, given the massacre at Virginia Tech. Richardson said that, as someone who hails from the West, gun rights and the Second Amendment are very important.

Dodd, facing Williams' charge that he has been "rather unabashed" about accepting money from lobbyists, defended his long career in Congress as one devoted to "public service."

The lightest moment came when Williams spoke to Biden. Mentioning that Biden has been accused of "uncontrolled verbosity," the newsman asked him whether he could convince voters that he would have the "discipline" to keep from yakking all the time.

"Yes" was Biden's one-word response.

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