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Democrats may vote by race in S. Carolina

In a state where most whites are Republican, the rest tend to favor Clinton and Edwards for various reasons.

January 25, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

LANCASTER, S.C. — Shelby King is a fan of Barack Obama. She admires his charisma and passion and believes he could unite the country as president. On Saturday, however, King plans to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in South Carolina's Democratic primary.

"She's got the experience," said King, 61, a real estate agent in Columbia, the state capital. "She's tough. She's bright. I'm a female of her era, and I know how hard it's been to get to where she's gotten."

Edward Pair also likes Obama. But he plans to vote for John Edwards, who seems to have better ideas on how to fix the country. "It's not just rhetoric," said Pair, 57, a rural letter carrier. "Edwards has real good answers."

South Carolina, host of the Democrats' first Southern primary, is also the first contested state with a substantial black population. As many as half or more of those who turn out to vote Saturday may be African American, making Obama the favorite to win and boosting his efforts to become the nation's first black president.

But that still leaves a substantial number of white voters -- King and Pair among them -- and their choices could mean the difference between a big Obama victory and something different. "Therein lies the key to what the margins are going to be," said Carey Crantford, a veteran surveyor of South Carolina opinion.

Illinois Sen. Obama has plenty of white backers in the state, including former Gov. Jim Hodges and South Carolina's two most recent Democratic chairmen. New York Sen. Clinton, whose husband is admired by many in the black community, has made inroads among African Americans here as elsewhere.


A racial divide

But a familiar pattern has emerged. It may not be driven by the racial animus that caused so many whites to flee the Democratic Party over the last few decades -- 96% of those casting ballots in last Saturday's GOP primary in South Carolina were white. Still, polls have found a substantial divide between white and black in South Carolina, with Obama the favorite of African Americans, and Clinton and Edwards leading among whites.

King and Pair reflect two pillars of the Democratic Party in this heavily Republican state. One is women, especially the affluent and well-educated who live in cities. The other is hard-pressed rural voters who have stayed true to the party for the reason that Pair offered. "I'm a Democrat," he said, "because I'm not rich."

Obama's challenge, especially beyond South Carolina, is to capture more of those core Democratic voters, particularly those living paycheck to paycheck, who powered Clinton to victories in New Hampshire and Nevada. "It's hard to get excited about 'change' when you're trying just to get by," Crantford said of Obama's political overhaul message.

Democrats are a minority in South Carolina. Although the state does not have party registration, experts say about one in three of those surveyed identify themselves as Democrats, compared to about four in 10 who call themselves Republican. The rest are nominal independents, who typically lean more Republican than Democratic.

Translated into political power, the GOP dominance is clear. Republicans hold most statewide offices, including the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats, plus four of the state's six congressional seats and majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Democrats have not carried the state in a presidential race since 1976.

'I've been a Democrat my whole life, and I've probably supported more losers than winners, quite frankly," said John Long, 53, a white bank president in rural Cheraw. "I go to a party with my peers and I'm the only one who's a Democrat."

For some white Democrats, mainly in rural areas, their identity is a hand-me-down from the days of one-party rule and the solid Democratic South. For others teaching at universities, working in state government or living in cities and fashionable coastal communities, being a Democrat means pushing back against the prevailing political culture.

Two days of interviews, in Columbia and here in the state's rural northeast, showed the hurdles facing Obama as he tries to broaden his coalition beyond African Americans to include more women and working-class voters.


Excitement but doubts

In Columbia's mostly white Shandon neighborhood, where big maple trees shade rows of historic homes, there was excitement but doubts about the prospect of electing a black man or a woman as president.

Michelle Ehrlich, 55, was leaning toward Clinton, like virtually all of a dozen women interviewed. "I'm really anxious to have a woman president," she said, though she plans to back Obama if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

"I feel the country is right at the precipice," Ehrlich, an intensive-care nurse, said as her 5-month-old grandson Ian -- "a Democrat his whole life" -- gurgled from a carrier tucked in a shopping cart. "I think people want enough of a change that they will be willing to vote even when they normally would not for either a black or a female."

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