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About Face

Hillary Clinton's strategy in South Carolina has always been clear: stockpile as many endorsements from prominent African Americans as possible. She's done impressively. By November 27th, when she stood on stage with over 60 of the state's most powerful ministers--people like Reverend J.W. Sanders of Bethel Baptist Church in Gaffney, and Reverend Charles Jackson, Jr., of the mammoth Cornerstone Baptist Church in Spartanburg--it was clear that she had become the candidate of South Carolina's black establishment. In a state where African Americans are projected to comprise at least half of the Democratic primary turnout, the event was a powerful display. Speakers echoed Clinton talking points flawlessly: "We need to look for a leader that is ready to lead right now," said Timothy Brown, a Baptist pastor in Spartanburg, adding, with a dagger twist, "We don't need to be filling our heads with hopes and dreams."

Rhetoric like that, in the newly racialized 2008 race, has set the tone for next week's primary and helped force a confrontation between party and identity politics in the state. Hillary Clinton has won over an impressive band of African American community leaders in South Carolina, many of whom have been Clinton loyalists since Bill dominated the black vote here in 1992 and 1996. In addition to the corps of ministers, the Clinton team locked up the support of dozens of black elected officials, including the state's former black caucus chair, David J. Mack, and influential state senators Darrell Jackson and Robert Ford, who were both instrumental in helping John Edwards win 37 percent of the black vote four years ago. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has run a more grassroots campaign for black votes. This is partly out of necessity--no doubt he would have appreciated Hillary's endorsements. But Obama’s team has always put more stock in a bottom-up electoral strategy. And it seems to be working. Three months ago, Clinton was beating Obama among blacks by a 22-point margin. According to a Rasmussen poll released Thursday, Obama is now 44 points ahead of Clinton among black voters. Black voters in South Carolina have consistently boosted black candidates--see Jesse Jackson’s primary victories in 1984 and 1988, and Al Sharpton’s third-place finish in 2004; Obama’s candidacy may have history, if not hierarchy, on its side.

In the face of growing excitement about Obama after his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Hillary’s African American endorsers have stood by their woman. State Senator Ford sounded faintly exasperated as he made the pre-New Hampshire case for Clinton. "You all think that because a black man gets in the race we're all going to run away," he told me on the phone. "Across the country a lot of us in the civil rights and social justice community have between a 16-to-30-year relationship--a positive relationship--with the Clintons, and Hillary especially." Harold Mitchell, a state senator who backed Obama early and even acted as an informal consultant to the campaign, says that he switched to Clinton’s camp after being impressed by her mastery of low-income housing politics when he testified before a Senate committee last July. While he told me he still likes Obama, he called a vote for Clinton and her problem-solving abilities a "no-brainer." Darrell Jackson also praised the freshman senator, but summarized the challenge Obama faces against the Clintons in the state: “They have so many friends and their support is so deep and wide. He just hasn’t had the opportunity to build the type of deep relationships that [Hillary] has.”

But, in the end, how much are voters really affected by the suggestions of, as a Clinton aide put it to me, a “credible voice in the community?” Former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler, a close friend of the Clintons and a veteran of South Carolina politics, downplayed the endorsement game, noting that he, Congressman James Clyburn, and Senator Fritz Hollings all endorsed John Kerry in 2004, and Edwards “still beat him two to one.” Be that as it may, endorsements remain the strongest cards in Hillary’s deck. She has deployed Ford, Jackson (a paid consultant for the campaign who also pastors a 9,000-member church in the state capital), state representative Terry Alexander, and city councilwomen Bernice Scott and Joyce Dickerson across South Carolina to make the case, as expressed here by Fowler, that she has “all the policy credibility, all of the political instincts that commend her to the African American community.” When Hillary made her first 2008 appearance this weekend at the gigantic Northminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, she was flanked by nationally known African American figures like Ohio congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and Robert Johnson, founder of BET. And her strongest surrogate is making a big push himself: Bill Clinton will reportedly spend all of next week in the state.

Obama has run a different style of campaign, placing a premium on individual contact and voter registration. According to an Obama aide, the philosophy worked well in Iowa and has been transplanted (along with many key organizers) to South Carolina. Obama has paid more visits to the state and has opened more regional offices than Clinton. He has convened “faith forums” in 20 counties, and the campaign claims to have involved some 900 black barber shops and beauty salons in its outreach. Obama has also benefited from a key endorsement, albeit an unconventional one. Oprah Winfrey roped in thousands of blacks and whites alike to hear Obama’s campaign pitch in early December, and polls show Obama vaulting ahead of Clinton following her visit.

Clinton’s South Carolina backers believe that their candidate can and should appeal to black voters, but, judging from current polls, they stand to be proven wrong. When I spoke with Reverend Brown recently, he backed away somewhat from his “hopes and dreams” comment, but remained steadfast in his concerns about Obama. “I think that black voters have matured. We cannot be duped into voting for a person based on their ethnicity.” Ford hammered Obama on electability last year, saying, “Every Democratic candidate running on that ticket would lose because he's black and he's at the top of the ticket." When I spoke to him last week, he brought up the failed candidacies of black hopefuls like Dick Gregory (1968), Shirley Chisholm (1972), and Jesse Jackson, and catalogued the short list of national officials of African descent. "We can’t win,” he said. Mitchell, over the phone, struck a similar theme: "I looked at Harold Ford [in Tennessee], I looked at the Jena Six--this is still America."

Ford acknowledges that Obama's biography--his being a product of a single mother and long racial odds--is incredibly compelling for African American voters. "No way you're going to get a majority of black people to vote against the black candidate," he said. "All he has to do is be black." Even Obama, famously “post-racial” and uncomfortable with the identity politics of Jesse Jackson and Sharpton, seems attuned to this reality. Recall that he gained his summer stride, and the now-famous "Fired Up" call-and-response, from an elderly African American organizer in Greenwood, South Carolina (he rarely mentions that she is black). His new "yes, we can" mantra is a graceful rehabilitation of what has been a racialized power slogan. And when Obama appeared with John Kerry last week in Charleston, he closed a litany of kitchen-table concerns with a firm “It ain’t right”--a rare slip into signifyin' that was met with jubilant applause. It was a masterstroke, and a small peek into why (if the polls are to be trusted) Obama will most likely thwart Clinton's well-laid plans in the South Carolina primary. The tougher question--and the one most likely weighing on the minds of Hillary endorsers like Ford and Jackson--is how such subtle reminders of Obama’s skin color will play as the campaign moves beyond the Palmetto State.

Dayo Olopade is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.