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In S.C., Black Voters' Clout Reshapes Presidential Race

April 18, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

In New Hampshire, affluent, college-educated professionals with liberal social values are a significant force in the Democratic primary; here, the Democratic vote from both races tends to be more blue-collar. The median income in South Carolina is 11% below the national average, and well below that of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Democratic meetings in Iowa and New Hampshire are often crowded with earnest activists who will quiz the candidates for their views on AIDS policy in Africa or arms control. In South Carolina, candidates are more likely to encounter questions about the minimum wage and the cost of health care.

"We are a poor state and people want to know what is going to be done to improve their way of life," said Ed Givens, a lawyer in Columbia.

Those concerns are especially acute in the black community. The poverty rate among the state's African Americans is 26.3% -- more than double the overall national rate and triple the rate for South Carolina whites.

That also helps raise issues rarely broached in Iowa and New Hampshire. As the candidates pass through his study, for instance, Darby said he passes along concerns from his 3,000-member congregation about a lack of minority teachers in public schools and disrespectful treatment of low-income families at clinics that provide health care under Medicaid.

"You'll get a different flavor of question in here," Darby said.

One issue that's unlikely to cast much of a shadow is the lingering controversy over the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of the state Capitol. Although Gephardt and Dean first hesitated, all of the Democrats have now called for the flag's removal. And although the state NAACP has urged an economic boycott of the state until the flag is removed, it won't criticize the candidates for spending money in South Carolina.

The potential of a significant moderate to conservative white vote also could separate South Carolina from the other traditional early tests on the Democratic calendar. "Even in a Democratic primary in South Carolina, you have a conservative thread that runs through our voters," said Democratic state Rep. Doug Jennings, who's backing Lieberman.

In that way, the state might operate as a counterweight to the antiwar sentiments common among Democratic activists in Iowa and New Hampshire.

And since the state has no party registration, the primary is open not only to Democrats but independents and Republicans. The more centrist Democratic contenders, such as Lieberman, could benefit from a strong crossover vote.

"This is very new for us," said Joe Irwin, a Greenville advertising executive who's running for state party chairman. "A lot of people are surprised by the attention; they don't know quite what to do yet. Do I volunteer for one of these candidates yet? Do I wait to meet every man or woman who is running? A lot of people who have been active are kind of shocked by all this."

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