COLUMBIA, S.C.—Senator Barack Obama cruised to a huge victory today in South Carolina's Democratic primary, injecting needed momentum into his campaign and capping a bitter contest here with Senator Hillary Clinton that touched on race, honesty, and the proper role of an ex-president in the election.
In the party's first Southern primary, Obama racked up enormous margins among black voters, who accounted for roughly half of Democrats casting ballots, according to early exit polling data. He beat Clinton among African-Americans 81 to 17 percent. But he also won enough support from white voters to notch a commanding overall victory.
Obama's triumph, though expected, represents a big win, and it sets the stage for a high-stakes showdown between he and Clinton on Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states hold primaries or caucuses. As polls closed tonight, Clinton was battling former senator John Edwards for second place.
Early exit polling data indicated that voters today were far more concerned about the economy than health care or Iraq, and that they voted more on issues and the candidates' characters than on electability. State Democratic Party officials had predicted a record turnout, given the intense interest in the nomination race, South Carolina's newly prominent spot in the primary calendar, and the fact that the vote fell on a sunny Saturday.
Though Obama and Clinton remain locked in a close fight for the Democratic nomination, most analysts believed Obama had to win South Carolina to gain enough strength heading into Feb. 5. After Obama won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, Clinton bounced back to win New Hampshire and Nevada, putting the onus on Obama to halt her momentum.
From here, the Democratic race turns exponentially more complex. With the four early-voting states behind them, Obama, Clinton, and Edwards now fan out across the country to vie for support in states as disparate as California, New Jersey, and Alabama.
With Obama the most viable black candidate ever to run for president, South Carolina became the first crucial test of how the country's African-American voters would respond. Obama's candidacy excited black South Carolinians, but many had been skeptical he could win. And Clinton, thanks in part to her husband, former president Bill Clinton, enjoyed deep support in black communities.
But the equation changed after Obama won Iowa, proving to African-Americans that he could win in white regions, too. And it shifted further following an uproar among some black leaders about Hillary Clinton's recent remarks seeming to downplay the civil rights accomplishments of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Polls leading up to today's vote showed Obama beating Clinton handily among black voters.
The question as polls closed was two-fold: whether that margin would hold on primary day, and whether Obama's increasing appeal among black voters would come at the expense of support from whites, who had said in surveys that they preferred Clinton and Edwards.
Obama answered today: His margin of victory among blacks was far higher than polls had anticipated; Obama beat Clinton among African-American women by a whopping 65 percentage points, exit polling data showed. But Obama also won a quarter of white voters, and nearly tied Clinton among white men. Clinton performed best among white women, winning 42 percent to Edwards's 35 percent and Obama's 22 percent.