Can Obama cross racial divide?

The questions surrounding Barack Obama’s victory in South Carolina: Was the split between white and black voters an anomaly in a state were the Confederate flag still flies on the statehouse grounds? Or has the Clinton campaign successfully marginalized him as the “black candidate?”

What’s clear is that for Obama to win the nomination, he will have to improve his performance among white voters over South Carolina. Being the clear favorite among blacks won’t be enough as the candidates turn to 22 states that hold contests on Feb. 5.

Obama’s overwhelming victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton came with 80 percent of South Carolina’s black voters backing him, but only a quarter of whites. Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards each got about a third of the white vote.

That’s a division Obama will have to close if he is to win the nomination.

“The choice in this election is not between regions or religions or genders,” Obama said in his victory speech Saturday night, delivered with mostly white supporters seated behind him. “It’s not about rich versus poor, young versus old, and it is not about black versus white. It’s about the past versus the future.”

Obama has proven that he has appeal among whites. He won Iowa, one of the whitest states in the country, and won more than a third of white voters in multi-candidate contests in New Hampshire and Nevada — even though Clinton won both states.

But that changed in South Carolina, where racial tensions still run high. The state delivered a stunning rejection to Hillary Rodham Clinton and perhaps even more so her husband, famously regarded as the “first black president.” The black voters of South Carolina said they wanted Obama in the White House instead of another Clinton.

Bill Clinton was the one who worked the state all week long as Obama’s chief critic, even as his wife turned her attention to the states voting on Feb. 5 in anticipation of the loss. Voters listened — more than half said the former president’s campaigning was an important factor in their decision, according to exit polls collected by The Associated Press and television networks. But people who said Bill Clinton’s campaigning made a difference in their vote still supported Obama.

Among those voters was Iris Gladden, a self-described news junkie and black voter who lives in rural Timmonsville, S.C. She struggled all year to decide whether to support Clinton or Obama. She said the decision was made when she heard Bill Clinton lambaste Obama for his position on the Iraq war. She said she was offended by the Clintons’ air of entitlement and cast her vote Saturday for Obama.

“He said, `Give me a break, is this a fairy tale,'” Gladden said. “Even when he was advised to cut down on it, he didn’t. Based on that negativity, I made up my mind.”

Asked whether Bill Clinton hurt his wife’s candidacy, South Carolina Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn said, “I don’t know whether he hurt it or not, but I don’t think it was very helpful. I know the early polls I saw a months ago, she was leading Obama in the state by double digits. So something happened.”

Clyburn said the campaign should move away from race now to talk about the future of the country.

“I think those people that were campaigning, drawing attention to this man’s race and trying to get him off message, I think those people were rejected tonight,” Clyburn said.

But however much Bill Clinton may have hurt his wife’s candidacy, his effort may also have hurt Obama’s image as a candidate who can cross racial lines.

Bill Clinton suggested that Obama’s victory was an indicator of black support and not of real strength. “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88,” the former president said Saturday as voters went to the polls. “Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.”

For example, black voters were just 8 percent of the turnout in the California Democratic primary four years ago. They were 15 percent in Missouri, 20 percent in New York, 23 percent in Tennessee and 47 percent in Georgia — all states that are among those that will vote 10 days after South Carolina.

“He won fair and square,” Bill Clinton said of Obama Saturday night. “Now we go to February 5 when millions of Americans finally get in the act.”

In South Carolina, race was a more important factor than gender. Obama defeated Clinton among both women and men, winning just more than half the support of each gender. Clinton won only about three in 10 women overall.

But the gender breakdown was racially tinged. Clinton got four in 10 white females, compared with a third for Edwards and one in five for Obama. Edwards won about four in 10 white males, while Clinton and Obama each won about three in 10.

But, surprisingly, Obama ran almost even with Clinton among white males — 29 percent to 27 percent — which the Obama campaign took as a bright sign going forward.


Nedra Pickler covers the Democratic presidential campaign for The Associated Press.