WASHINGTON — Democrats head away from South Carolina Sunday torn between two top candidates — and deeply divided along racial lines that could pull at their party throughout a long and bruising campaign.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama won the state. But he did it by winning an overwhelming majority of black votes while losing the majority of white votes — and getting a smaller share of the white vote than he had in any other state so far this year.
Together, those racial results suggest challenges ahead for Obama, who yearns to bridge racial divisions, not exacerbate them, particularly as the campaign goes coast to coast with contests in 22 states on Feb. 5, "Super Tuesday."
But they also point to a possible problem for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who failed to win many black votes despite the aggressive courting by her husband, a man so empathetic he once was described by writer Toni Morrison as the "first black president."
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Many Democrats complained that former President Bill Clinton was too harsh in his criticism of Obama, raising the possibility that some African-Americans could hold a grudge even if Hillary Clinton goes on to win the nomination.
"Racial politics were injected into this campaign in a way that was unnerving to me," said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and a major figure in African-American politics in South Carolina.
Obama's win keeps him neck and neck with Clinton for the nomination, each now with two state wins. He won Iowa and South Carolina; she won New Hampshire and Nevada. Chances appear to be growing that their battle will continue until the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.
"I do not believe Super Tuesday will decide the nominee for our party," said Clyburn. "I believe it will keep going through to the convention."
If South Carolina is a sign of what's to come, their competition will be tough, perhaps even nasty, and driven perhaps as much by the race and gender of the voters as by the candidates' agendas.
Clinton and Obama each hold a firm base in the party, as illustrated by the results so far from four contests in all four regions of the country — Iowa in the Midwest, New Hampshire in the Northeast, Nevada in the West and South Carolina in the South.
Her base is women, whites, older people, blue-collar workers, and firm Democrats.
His base is males, blacks, young people, upper middle class professionals and independents.
That gives Clinton an edge; women and whites are a much bigger slice of the party, and Democrats outnumber independents.
But Obama has shown an ability to break into her base, as he did in winning the women's vote in Iowa.
The key to Obama's success is reaching across racial lines, avoiding being seen as a "black candidate" with limited appeal and winning white votes.
His share of the white vote remained roughly the same through contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, when he took 33 percent, 36 percent, and 34 percent respectively.
In South Carolina he took 24 percent of the white vote.
Clinton's share of the white vote grew at each step — 27 percent in Iowa, 39 percent in New Hampshire, 52 percent in Nevada. But it dropped in South Carolina to 38 percent, tied with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. If he drops out or is seen as no longer viable by most voters, it's unclear where his share of the vote would go.
Edwards now confronts the all-but-certain fact that he will not be the nominee. He has not won a state, not even his native South Carolina, the only state primary he won in 2004.
His hope now is to find enough cash to stay in the campaign and continue to win some delegates somewhere. That could give him a prized bargaining chip should Obama and Clinton remain locked in such a close contest that each falls short of the delegate majority needed to win the nomination. That might force them into a deal with Edwards to gain his delegates.
His dream: a deadlocked convention turns to him as an alternative. The more likely reality: He delivers his delegates and hopes to be named attorney general or to the Supreme Court.