ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
NPR's Linda Wertheimer watched last night's debate with a group of African-American voters in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of the CNN/YouTube event. South Carolina is among the first states to choose delegates to the nominating conventions in 2008. And about half of the states Democratic voters are black - a far larger proportion than in any other early-voting state. These voters are fully aware of their importance.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: Our group of voters are politically active, professionals, business owners, some students. A number of them work with local organizations trying to raise awareness of health problems like diabetes, prevalent in the African-American community. Most of them went into the debate undecided and came out the same way.
Rose Collins works for the president of the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain, she may not vote for Hillary Clinton, but thought she was impressive on education and health care.
Ms. ROSE COLLINS (Employee, Piggly Wiggly): Well, being a woman and being a black woman, I feel that she addressed the issues that are important to me.
WERTHEIMER: The candidate who surprised our group was John Edwards. Local chiropractor, Dr. Milton Hudson(ph), liked his intensity. Some saw Edwards as a potential president, including Gail Simpson(ph) who's an accountant in the U.S. Passport Office here. But first, Dr. Hudson.
Dr. MILTON HUDSON (Chiropractor): He just really spoke from the heart it seemed. His comments on same sex marriage where something that I could relate to as far as a personal conflict where you have to separate your personal feelings from the matter in order to get a job done. So I would say that Edwards was the most impressive to me.
Ms. GAIL SIMPSON (Accountant, U.S. Passport Office): I was impressed with Edwards also. He may be a great actor because - I mean, it was like, everything was asked of him, it was like prefect answers.
WERTHEIMER: But what did this group of black voters think about Barack Obama? He's always impressive was a general response. But a number of our group felt Obama was restrained, even circumspect.
Michael Miller(ph) owns his own hair salon.
Mr. MICHAEL MILLER (Salon Owner): Barack seems kind of middle of the road to me. I think he's just at the point where he's not really ready to rock the boat just yet.
WERTHEIMER: Two of the younger people felt Obama was not as impressive as they thought he'd be. First, you'll hear Jaziri Whooper(ph), a community reporter for the Post Courier here, then Kara Simmons(ph), a communications major at Columbia College in Charleston.
Mr. JAZIRI WHOOPER (Reporter, Charleston Post and Courier): Some of his newness does show to me.
Ms. KARA SIMMONS (Student, Columbia College): He's not really answering any questions that we exactly want to hear. You know, he'll talk around and then kind of, sort of, tippy-toe around it, but he won't step right in and let us know what we want to know.
WERTHEIMER: But Dr. Milton Hudson says his vote is still Obama's to lose, mainly because of shared experience.
Dr. HUDSON: I guess one thing that really struck me is when they asked about his, quote, unquote, "blackness," and, you know, the extent of his blackness. I can't get to a cab in Manhattan, I've never been in New York, but I mean, there's lot of other different experience. If you get followed around in the store, you know, it's the same thing. And again, Barack Obama has my vote to lose.
WERTHEIMER: A number of questions from the YouTube participants were about race. And I asked our group of African-American voters, if that discussion was important to them, basically, they said no. Kara Simmons explained that, of course, this campaign is largely about race with the serious contender who is black, but…
Ms. SIMMONS: A lot of the answers tonight were the right answers, or the answers that, you know, they - that were right that we should have - well, not should have heard, but the answers that they gave us were the right answers. So there was no way for me to lean this way or that way.
WERTHEIMER: A local caterer, Dwayne Pierce(ph), said a real discussion of race and racism ought to take place around issues.
Mr. DWAYNE PIERCE (Caterer): If you sort of graze over the subject of health care, but you make a big deal out of who's more black, how black Obama is, it tells me that you're really not addressing African-American problems.
WERTHEIMER: Philly Moultrey(ph), who coordinates community programs on health problems, one of the candidates did talk about health care and the African American community - New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.
Mr. PHILLY MOULTREY (Community Program Coordinator): He understood the whole health care pendulum, how it's moving back and forth, and how he has to address it. So he is one of the ones that get it.
WERTHEIMER: I asked if anyone would like to see fewer candidates on stage, but this group is not ready to get down to the top three, way too early. What about those YouTube video questions? Some serious, some amusing, or not?
Here's Gail Simpson again.
Ms. SIMPSON: I wouldn't go to a debate for amusement. You know, I want to know what's going on. I want to know your views on how you're going to, you know, be a good president. And some of them were pretty good, but overall, I think majority of them was - we could do without it.
WERTHEIMER: African-American voters watching the candidates in Charleston, South Carolina.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.
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