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At the end of a week of heated exchanges, veiled racial comments, and charges of he-said-she said, South Carolina voters handed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) a decisive 55% victory on Saturday in the state’s Democratic primary.
The record turnout and a wide majority of African Americans who cast their vote for Obama certainly helped propel him to victory, but so too did the nearly 25% of white voters who also threw their support behind the candidate. In fact, the number of votes cast for Obama alone exceeded the total number of votes cast in the state’s 2004 Democratic primary. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) came in second and third, respectively, at 27% and 18%.
“This was a stunning performance on Obama’s part, given that he’s running against the most powerful political machine we’ve seen in the last 60 years,” says James Taylor, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. “Now he can go back to that elevated place and talk about big ideas and a united America.”
Ironically, efforts to hurt Obama’s campaign by former President Bill Clinton, who once campaigned as a man from a town called Hope, proved unsuccessful and may even have hurt his wife’s showing in the primary. Taylor says Sen. Clinton’s team must now rethink this strategy and recalibrate its message.
“I believe people wanted to send a message to Bill Clinton. Obama got 80% of the black vote, where a few days earlier it was thought he’d get just 60%. I think the controversy pushed some people over the line,” says Michael K. Fauntroy, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University.
When asked by a reporter what it says about Barack Obama that it takes two Clintons to beat him, Bill Clinton replied, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina twice, in ‘84 and ’88. And he ran a good campaign; Sen. Obama’s run a good campaign here … ” Many experts view this as a clear attempt to marginalize Obama as a so-called black candidate. Interestingly, Obama is holding an event in his white grandfather’s hometown in El Dorado, Kansas, on Tuesday, which may have been planned, at least in part, to dispel that notion.
Now all three candidates must focus their attention on Feb. 5, also known as Super Tuesday, when 22 states will hold primaries. Obama begins the period leading up to the big day with an endorsement from Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, to whom he has often been compared. In The New York Times Sunday op-ed section, she wrote, “I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president—not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.”
This, says Taylor, “is huge. She does not do this loosely or unadvisedly; she understands the power of the Kennedy name and she is the keeper of the JFK