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His political machine could break through the state's longtime barrier to black candidates.
Published Jan. 8, 2008

On one of those steamy days in the middle of summer when even the flies seem to buzz slowly, a tall young white man pulled into the sand parking lot and knocked on the door of Styles of Distinction Beautique.

He told the owner, Latrice Lewis, that he worked for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, and he wanted to leave some literature for her customers. But more than that, he wanted Lewis to help spread Obama's vision of hope for America, and to get her permission to check back every now and then.

Lewis, 37, whose shop serves about 200 customers each week, was flattered to be asked. No candidate ever had. So Styles of Distinction joined scores of African-American barber shops and beauty salons across South Carolina serving as minicampaign offices in Obama's quest to become president of the United States.

"One thing about the African-American community, you're going to get your hair done," Lewis, a statuesque woman wearing white and black boots, said Wednesday. "While they're sitting in our chairs, we're giving them some of the points."

In the race for the Democratic nomination, it is hard to overstate the importance of South Carolina, the first primary state with a large population of African-American voters. About 30 percent of the state's residents are black, as are about half the voters in its Democratic presidential primaries.

Buoyed by the affection that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, enjoys among many African-Americans, by the strength of her national campaign, and by the support of the state's black political establishment, polls showed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton leading Obama among black voters here by 10 percentage points as recently as August.

Now, several polls show them tied, or give Obama a slight edge. Campaign workers, Democratic activists and independent analysts cite two main reasons for his surge. First is a strong grass roots organizing effort, like the beauty salons and barber shop initiative - known in the campaign as B-and-B - that is now bearing fruit.

Second is his recent success in the polls in lily-white New Hampshire and Iowa, where just 2 percent of residents are black. Contrary to the initial feelings of many African-Americans here, it now appears that white people just might vote for him.

"If Obama demonstrates in Iowa that he's a winner, he's going to run away with South Carolina," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-Sumter, South Carolina's top black politician, who isn't taking sides. "There's no question about that. He will run away with South Carolina."

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Prominent lawyer Steve Benjamin adores former President Clinton and had discussed his wife's candidacy with him earlier this year. He had also met with Hillary Clinton, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama and their surrogates.

Benjamin, 37, is a Democratic activist who ran for state attorney general in 2002. He lost with 44 percent of the vote, a drubbing by almost any measure, but it was a record draw for a black candidate in a statewide race.

Now he is chairman of the Democratic Party in Richland County, which includes Columbia, the state capital. Nearly half the county's residents are black, and it delivered about 17 percent of the total votes in the Democratic presidential primary back in 2004.

But when the former president called again while in town for a banquet Monday night, Benjamin declined to meet with him. "I thought it would be somewhat disingenuous," he said.

The next day, Benjamin and a dozen other attorneys gathered outside a courthouse named for the first black federal judge from the Deep South and pledged their allegiance to Barack Obama.

"To not be part of it, I think I'd regret to my dying day," explained Benjamin, the father of two young girls. "The consistency of Barack Obama's message of hope, and America's better days being ahead of her, just won me over."

He added, "I think the world of Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton is bright and tough ... and I like the thought of a woman in charge."

But Benjamin says he chose Obama in part because of his campaign's focus on reaching voters directly.

He, Clyburn and other South Carolina operatives said Obama is far less dependent than Clinton on traditional conduits of black politics here, the preachers and elected leaders.

"It's staff- and volunteer-driven, with a huge number of volunteers, not the old-school street politics," Benjamin said. "He's challenging the way politics have been done in this state for the last 50 years."

Dick Harpootlian, a former state Democratic Party chairman who campaigned for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, said Obama's grass roots machine is the most sophisticated he has seen in 40 years, and it's one reason he's backing him.

The campaign boasts seven offices around the state, vs. six for Clinton, and has teams of volunteers contacting potential voters in each of the 46 counties, including several poor, largely black counties that are rarely courted except on election day.

Earlier this month in Columbia, an Obama rally with talk show host Oprah Winfrey drew nearly 30,000 people, most of them black, the largest crowd for a political event in state history.

"It was awesome," gushed Nicole Dubose, 22, who attended and plans to vote for Obama. "He seemed so down to earth."

But the event was more than just another rally.

As the crowd passed through the stadium gates, everyone was handed the names and phone numbers of four likely Democratic voters to call during the program. The campaign rented mobile towers to handle the extra wireless traffic.

And at the start of the show, the crowd was told to send a text message to a special number to register for an instant drawing. Three winners and their guests got to sit down front and meet Oprah and Obama. More than a sweet door prize, the drawing provided Obama's strategists with the cell phone numbers for thousands of likely supporters.

"If they missed anything, I don't know what it was," Harpootlian said. "I've never seen anything like this, the scope of it, the scale of it, and the ability to squeeze every drop out of the effort they make."

Clinton, of course, has a formidable machine as well, and she has won the backing of prominent black activists and politicians in every corner of the state. Her husband has visited several times in the past month on her behalf, as has Georgia Rep. John Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement.

Katie Catalon of Charleston, president of the National Beauty Culturalists League, which represents black salons, is campaigning for her as well, and several Obama supporters say they expect Clinton to win the endorsement of the state chapter of the National Baptist Convention, the main association of black Baptist churches.

Last week, she was endorsed by Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the state Democratic Party whose wife, Carol, is the state party chairman.

Fowler and other Clinton supporters say they aren't surprised that Obama is threatening Clinton in South Carolina, and that her aura of inevitability was bound to fade as the Jan. 26 primary date neared and more voters began paying attention.

"This is a close race," Fowler said. "Anyone who ever thought this was a done deal is a bit mistaken and perhaps naive."

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Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who was born in Seneca, S.C., won South Carolina in 2004 but is running a distant third now, despite aggressive advertising. Polls put his support among black voters in the single digits.

As they weigh Obama and Clinton, African-American voters sound a lot like all Democratic voters: Obama's backers see him as a fresh voice and an agent of change, and someone who could unite America, rather than deepen the fissures between Democrats and Republicans. Invariably, they say they fear Clinton is too polarizing to win nationwide.

Clinton's supporters cite the New York senator's experience and her perceived toughness, and invariably say they believe she has the best chance to win nationwide.

But in a state that hasn't elected an African-American to statewide office since Reconstruction, despite the large black population, and where at times it seems that the Confederacy has somehow retained an embassy, a little poking easily brings Obama's race to the surface.

In February, state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, a longtime political leader and organizer in the black community, threw his heft behind Clinton, saying that putting Obama atop the ballot next November would sink the entire Democratic ticket.

Having a black leader suggest that a black candidate would "doom" the party caused quite a ruckus, and Ford later apologized. But he still believes Clinton is the Democrats' best hope. "I'm not willing to take (any) chance and experiment," Ford said Thursday.

Benjamin, the Columbia lawyer who rebuffed Bill Clinton to ally with Obama, said his own campaign for state attorney general convinced him otherwise, and he has faith that South Carolina will put him on track toward the White House.

"For the naysayers out there - and they come in every stripe - who say he can't win, this country is better than we think it is," Benjamin said. "The country and the state aren't where we ought to be, but we're a lot closer ... than we give ourselves credit for."

Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

South Carolina snapshots

CNN/Opinion Research Corp., Dec. 9-12

All Blacks

Clinton 42 46

Obama 34 45

Edwards 16 5

CNN/Opinion Research Corp., July 16-18

All Blacks

Clinton 39 52

Obama 25 33

Edwards 15 5