Blacks hand South Carolina to Obama

Crucial win for senator, who is now level with Democratic rival Hillary, at two wins each.

ILLINOIS Senator Barack Obama, aiming to become the first black US president, romped home to victory in a crucial South Carolina Democratic presidential primary yesterday.

Riding on a wave of African-American support in the southern state, he scored emphatically over New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, putting him on equal footing with her – with two wins each in early voting states – and leaving the Democrats no closer to finding a White House nominee.

But as the country heads for a nationwide battle next Tuesday, doubts persisted whether Mr Obama would get enough lift from this victory, which was based predominantly on the black vote.

Mr Obama’s score (55 per cent) was double that of Mrs Clinton’s (27 per cent). Mr John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, finished third with 18 per cent in a state he won during his failed 2004 race, raising new questions about the future of his candidacy.

Clearly, the South Carolina vote was divided along racial lines.

Exit polls showed that Mr Obama won the support of four out of every five black voters, who made up more than half of the Democratic electorate. He also garnered one-quarter of white votes, higher than many had predicted, but significantly lower than what he drew in Iowa or New Hampshire. Mr Edwards and Mrs Clinton split the remaining white vote.

Mr Obama sought to downplay the deep racial schisms that characterised the contest.

“It is not about black versus white,” he told his supporters in his victory speech. “This election is about the past versus the future.

“Tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.

After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.”

The Clinton campaign, which had been publicly lowering expectations of a victory, was looking beyond South Carolina. Mrs Clinton spent much of the past week campaigning in California, Arizona, New Jersey and New York – critical states among the nearly two dozen that will hold primaries on Super Tuesday.

Indeed, she left South Carolina before the votes were tallied to fly to Tennessee.

“Now the eyes of the country turn to Tennessee and the other states that will be voting on Feb 5,” she said in Nashville. “Millions and millions of Americans will have the chance to have their voices heard and their votes counted.”

South Carolina is a decisive – and important win for Mr Obama.

Of all the early-voting states, it is the biggest prize so far with 45 delegates to the Democratic nominating convention in August. Out of that number, Mr Obama secured 25 delegates, Mrs Clinton 12, and Mr Edwards eight.

And if the southern state is any guide, the large numbers of black voters in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee could help him in the Feb 5 primaries.

But it might still not be enough to challenge Mrs Clinton. Being seen increasingly through a racial lens might well diminish his chances in other states, especially those with fewer black voters.

Polls showed his closest rival with sizeable leads in delegate-rich states such as California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Together, these states account for 970 delegates, nearly half the total at stake on Feb 5 and a quarter of the total to be seated at the party’s convention in Denver.

The Democratic Party rules, however, provide for proportional allocation of delegates in each state. This could mean that Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton could be locked in a tight delegate fight that could spill over into the convention, where 2,025 delegates are needed for the nomination.

The Democrats – like the Republicans – are heading for a long and drawn-out battle for the presidential nomination.

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