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As S.C. approaches, status as frontrunner up for grabs

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FLORENCE, S.C. — The sense of inevitability that once surrounded Hillary Rodham Clinton’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination has lessened in this early voting state since challenger Barack Obama swept to a convincing win earlier this month in Iowa’s caucus.

The argument that the New York senator is the only candidate that can win against Republicans doesn’t carry as much weight as it did before Iowa, said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg and a superdelegate to the Democratic Party convention. She is uncommitted to a candidate.

“I think it means there are a lot of folks who had bought into this aura of inevitability that may be rethinking,” said Cobb-Hunter, who also is a member of the state party’s executive committee. That, she says, makes it easier for people to support the senator from Illinois or South Carolina native John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina.

The proof was in the audience of about 50 attending an Obama event here last Saturday. Only 64-year-old Lauretta McFadden said she had misgivings about Obama revolving around his race and whether he could win a general election.

“When it comes down to the actual election in November, will we be as committed to go out the polls and vote if it’s a black man against a white?” McFadden, who is black, asked after hearing from Obama supporters. “Will we still go out and vote as strongly then as we do now?”

That sentiment, coupled with the popularity of former President Bill Clinton, is what has helped Hillary Clinton maintain a comfortable lead in South Carolina polling. Both Clintons play up ties to the state from his years as Arkansas governor and her time working with Bennettsville native Marion Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Clinton’s paid staff in the state has surged from a couple of dozen to around 100.

But Obama has nearly as many staffers and far more volunteers. And he appears to be trumping Clinton’s efforts to bring new voters to the Jan. 26 primary.

“The Obama campaign has outrun and outsmarted the Clinton campaign,” said Waring Howe, a Charleston lawyer and member of the state party’s executive committee. He said Obama’s campaign has used technology to keep voters engaged and create momentum while the Clinton campaign has been more steeped in traditional efforts, including lining up endorsements from black ministers and legislators.

“The Clintons have got themselves to blame when they look in the mirror,” said Howe, also a superdelegate to his party’s convention. Howe says he has narrowed his choices to two, but wouldn’t say which two.

Don Fowler, the former Democratic National Committee co-chairman who formally joined the Clinton campaign last month, has said voters are getting a bargain if they vote for Hillary Clinton because they will get Bill Clinton, too.

Fowler says the Iowa loss isn’t changing South Carolina for Clinton. It is “just doing more of the same,” Fowler said.

He said he isn’t worried about Clinton winning over black voters, who are expected to make up about half of Democratic primary voters. Both campaigns have wooed black voters with radio ads and sought endorsements from black ministers.

“There’s no question that in terms of broad credibility, Hillary Clinton has as much credibility in the black community as Barack Obama and we’ll demonstrate that over the next two weeks,” Fowler said.

How Clinton demonstrates that will be the key.

“Hillary Clinton’s got a huge decision to make in the next few days,” Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson said. “If she goes negative, it’s a huge risk to her own campaign.

“Obama is not someone you can easily attack, because people just like the guy.”

(Associated Press)