Presidential hopefuls battle in US south / Obama and Clinton rivalry deepens racial divide

The first primaries in the southern states of South Carolina and Florida over the next few days will be crucial for presidential hopefuls on both sides of the political divide in the United States. US bureau chief Derwin Pereira looks at how both races are shaping up.

DEMOCRATS

SOUTH Carolina will be another dog-fight for the Democrats – this time around for the black vote.

The bitter rivalry between Illinois senator Barack Obama and former first lady Hillary Clinton has opened a deep racial divide among Democrats just before their first primary in the southern states today.

In South Carolina, about 50 per cent of registered Democrats are African-American – which gives Mr Obama an advantage over his closest rival.

They break solidly for Mr Obama, with 59 per cent supporting him, while Mrs Clinton managed to get 25 per cent. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards trailed with just 4 per cent.

White voters see the primary from the opposite end: 40 per cent support Mr Edwards, 36 per cent back Mrs Clinton, 10 per cent are behind Mr Obama and 14 per cent are undecided – as per a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll.

Both candidates will be forced to confront demographic realities in the coming primary contest in South Carolina and beyond.

Indeed, Mrs Clinton’s victory last week in Nevada – the early state most similar demographically to the major Feb 5 battlegrounds in California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois – showed the first troubling signs of racial and ethnic divisions.

Entrance polls from the caucus showed her winning the white vote 52 to 34 per cent over Mr Obama. She also had more than double his support – 64 to 26 per cent – among Hispanics, who will play a crucial role in California.

Mr Obama dominated with an 83-to-14 per cent advantage among black voters over her in Nevada. That trend is likely to work in his favour in the South Carolina contest, as well as in other southern states.

Mrs Clinton’s husband, former president Bill Clinton, suggested that she might lose the nomination contest in South Carolina because many black voters would side with Mr Obama.

“As far as I can tell, neither senator Obama nor Hillary have lost votes because of their race or gender,” he said.

“They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender – that’s why people tell me Hillary doesn’t have a chance of winning here.”

His unusually direct comment on the possible role of race in the election was in keeping with the Clinton campaign’s attempt to portray Mr Obama – who is aiming to become the first black US president – as the clear favourite.

It would lessen the potential fallout if Mrs Clinton did not win in South Carolina.

He made it clear, however, that his wife was not “playing the race card” in the campaign.

“This is almost like once you accuse somebody of racism or bigotry or something, the facts become irrelevant,” he said. “There are facts here.”

Tension between the two rivals has been rising since their angry debate on Monday, when both traded accusations about their record. Since then, they have cranked up their bitter fight for the Democratic nomination by preparing to attack each other over radio in South Carolina.

Mr Obama is walking a tightrope in the southern state.

On the one hand, he is trying to maximise his African-American support for a badly needed primary victory. On the other hand, he is also intent on reaching out to other groups to avoid being labelled as a candidate who only panders to black interests.

Having cruised to victory in the Iowa caucuses largely with the backing of white supporters, he is trying to build a multiracial coalition – and move beyond the heated racial discourse that is threatening to divide the party.

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