COLUMBIA, S.C — . -- The packed late morning service had just concluded at Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, one of the largest black churches in South Carolina. As congregants streamed out of the vast air-conditioned sanctuary, a handful of women stopped to chat about an issue that is tearing them up: the Democratic presidential primary.
The women, who included a hairdresser, a school administrator, an account manager and an Olympic sprinter, said they were struggling to decide between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, each of whose candidacy is potentially historic. Their decision could profoundly effect the Democratic presidential race.
Besides the appeal of gender and race, when asked what qualities they were drawn to, all of them said they valued Clinton's experience and Obama's sense of hope, causing a struggle between their hearts and their heads.
And if they look to people they respect for clues, which towering cultural figure should they heed? Oprah Winfrey, who has broken with her tradition of eschewing politics to embrace Obama? Or former President Bill Clinton, who visited this very church last spring and is widely revered in the black community?
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, September 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
South Carolina voters: An article in Wednesday's Section A about black female Democratic voters in South Carolina identified Gilda Y. Cobb-Hunter as a state senator. She is a state representative.
"I TiVo Oprah every day," said Neshunda Walters, a 33-year-old assistant high school principal. "But right now, I am on the fence, swaying a little bit toward Barack because I do want him to have a good showing in the primaries. I am also swinging towards Hillary because, knowing the experiences she had as first lady, she is well-versed in foreign policy."
Carmen Thomas, a 44-year-old hair salon owner whose husband, Benjamin, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, is feeling similar qualms. "I love Bill, loved him when he was in office," she said. "I am excited that we have a brother running for office and that we have a female running for office, and that they are both Democrats."
In South Carolina -- a newly important Democratic battleground with an early primary -- the black vote is crucial. Half of Democratic voters here are black; a majority of those are women. And because so many black women have yet to make up their minds -- about 40% in one recent poll said they were undecided -- experts suggest that the victor here Jan. 29 will be the candidate who successfully courts them.
The Democratic National Committee scheduled the primary on the heels of contests in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada specifically to give black voters a voice in the nominating process. Given Obama's vast resources, he could probably survive a setback in Iowa or New Hampshire. But if he can't win in South Carolina, say experts, he will be in trouble on Feb. 5, when 20 states are to vote in what amounts to a national primary.
"The worst thing Obama could do would be to lose in South Carolina," said Clemson University political science professor Bruce W. Ransom II.
Scott H. Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor who directed a recent poll of African Americans in the state, said Clinton was a favorite early on, thanks to her husband. "However, as African American voters have gotten to know Barack Obama, support for him has increased significantly," he said. "It may literally come down to whoever gets the African American female vote."
In the vestibule of Bible Way, which is the spiritual home to 10,000 members, the women spoke eagerly about the campaign, and their sense of political engagement -- some for the first time.
LaTasha Colander Clark, 31, is an Olympic track and field gold medalist who is pregnant with her first child. She wants a president who can make her feel safe, she said. "I am going to make sure I get every bit of information, right down to the last drop. I am going to take my time."
Felicia Doe said she was leaning toward Clinton, who seemed at ease on the international stage. "We have really ruined our American name in the world and we need to fix that," said Doe, a 40-year-old account manager. But, she said, "my heart leaps when I see Barack and everything he stands for."
Gwendolyn Rivers, 40, a mortgage lender and real estate agent, was taken by Obama's campaign logo, which looks like a sunrise. "It really did something to me, it just registered." She also is inspired by his multiracial heritage. "Because he is an African and white at the same time, I think he would be able to cross both lines and know what the majority of America is really about," Rivers said.
Still, the issues Rivers cares about most are education and healthcare, perceived to be strengths of Clinton's.
Obama and Clinton have each visited the state seven times since February. Actresses Alfre Woodard and Jasmine Guy have visited on behalf of Obama; Victoria Rowell of the daytime drama "The Young and the Restless" spent two days stumping for Clinton. The poet Maya Angelou has taped a video for Clinton that can be seen on her website or YouTube.