Inside Hairmasters barber and beauty shop Friday, the radio's soul music was interrupted by the raspy voice of New York Rep. Charles Rangel.
"Wes Clark has proven he'll stand up and fight for our rights," said the founder of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Moments later, the Rev. Al Sharpton came on the radio to tout his own presidential campaign: "Help me send the politicians a message. Our needs will not be ignored."
Gliding their shears over the heads of customers, Cliff Davis, 24, and Terrence Josey, 21, ignored the campaign ads but made clear they would be voting in Tuesday's presidential primary.
"There is no way I won't vote," said Davis, his customer nodding in agreement. "I haven't decided yet between (North Carolina Sen.) John Edwards or (former Vermont Gov.) Howard Dean, but I know we need some changes in this country."
Never before have African-Americans stood to have a major impact on a primary so early in the contest.
After more than a year of intensely courting overwhelmingly white Iowa and New Hampshire, the presidential contenders have descended on South Carolina, where African-Americans make up about 30 percent of the population and potentially half of the Democratic primary voters.
Ironically, though, black South Carolinians may not end up exerting as much influence as their potential.
In contrast to past primaries where black voters were largely unified behind Bill Clinton or Jesse Jackson or Al Gore, African-Americans this year appear split among the crowded field of Democrats.
"Once upon a time, we'd all be behind the same candidate, but I think that's changed because blacks are becoming more independent in their thinking," said Chester Ray, an African-American School Board member from Orangeburg.
David Bositis, who studies African-American voting patterns with the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said not since 1984 have African-Americans been so divided in a presidential primary.
"For the first time in a really long time, white and black Democrats have very similar issues," Bositis said, citing jobs and health care. "More than any other primary I've ever seen before the overriding issue for black voters is who is best able to win."
Voters in the Palmetto state, from tiny rural towns to big urban areas, talk fearfully about their way of life slipping away. Highway billboards scattered across the state speak to the anxiety: "Lost your job to free trade and offshoring yet?"
The state has lost more than 70,000 manufacturing jobs in the last three years. The once mighty textile industry is approaching extinction in the Upstate, the decline of tobacco has left some rural counties with double-digit unemployment rates, and longtime industries are moving overseas.
Drive 45 minutes from Columbia, past truck stops, cotton fields and the occasional aging plantation-style home to find a snapshot of the grim mood. In Bishopville more than 60 percent of the roughly 4,000 residents are black, and job opportunities beyond Piggly Wiggly grocery work are scarce.
Amid a downtown of one-story brick buildings are high interest loan shops, vacant properties and a rusty feed store. What's missing is optimism.
"If you're really determined you might be able to go to college, but then you still might not get a decent job," said Davis, the barber. "The other best option was to go into the service, but do you want to do that when you see all these innocent kids going to Iraq getting killed? And for what? I thought we were supposed to be after Osama bin Laden."
Down the street Icess Sherode doled out candied yams, collards and baked chicken in her diner, where a Bible sits on a pedestal for customers to review. She said she was undecided among the Democrats, but will choose whoever she concludes can beat Bush.
"In this town the best option for young people is to pack their bags and leave," she said. "I'm not saying Bush is not a good man, but he's not a leader. He's sent our boys over to Iraq and nobody even knows why we're there. In Bishopville, we've had two plants close in three years. We're hurting _ not just blacks, but whites too _ and we all need to come together."
Such anxieties are common across the state, and all the Democratic candidates have been talking up the need to revamp trade policies and create jobs. But with the candidates offering nearly identical platforms, electability is the driving issue.
Sharpton has been campaigning hard in South Carolina, and at least one recent poll showed him in third place with 15 percent support. A Zogby tracking poll released Friday, though, showed Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry virtually tied for the lead, followed by former Gen. Wesley Clark and Dean. They are trailed by Sharpton, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
At a church in Greenville Thursday, Sharpton had black voters on their feet cheering his fiery speech aimed at knocking down concerns about his ability to win.
"The only way not to waste your vote is to vote for somebody who can win if you give them your vote, but even if they don't win will make sure you're not ignored," he shouted.
But even many of those cheering said they had decided on someone else or were looking seriously at most of the contenders.
To U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's most prominent black politician and a Kerry backer, the lack of agreement is good news for the Democratic Party.
"It's healthy to have so many candidates who have found attraction with African-Americans," Clyburn said.
_ Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or adamsptimes.com.
South Carolina's voters
South Carolina is changing steadily, with the nation's seventh-highest rate of migration from other states in the 1990s. Facts about its people:
For 2000: 4-million
Rank: 26th of 50 states
Hispanic (any race): 2.4%
2000 presidential vote
Bush (R): 57%
Gore (D): 41%
Nader (Green): 1%
Veterans as percentage of voting age population: 14%
Median income: $37,100
White collar: 54%
Note: All figures are for 2000
Democratic primary voters statewide tracking poll results:+
+Reuters, MSNBC, Zogby Tracking Poll, rolling sample
Sources: Almanac of American Politics, U.S. Census Bureau, The Polling Report, KRT