COLUMBIA, S.C.—Barack Obama won a huge battle in South Carolina, and his speech tonight was the kind of ambitious speech that is meant to set the tone for the rest of his war for the Democratic nomination.
Obama told a crowd of several thousand cheering supporters in a convention center in downtown Columbia that “the cynics who said what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.”
He also sought to frame his race with Hillary Clinton more starkly than ever before.
It was, he said, “not about black versus white. This election is about the past versus the future.”
And, in perhaps the most emotional passage of a 20-minute speech that began shortly after 9 p.m., he offered two vignettes that he said proved hope was enduring and change was possible.
One concerned a woman who recently sent his campaign a contribution of $3.01 and a piece of Scripture; the other involved a former supporter of the late segregationist senator Strom Thurmond who, in this election, is going door-to-door canvassing for the Obama campaign.
“So don’t tell me we can’t change,” Obama thundered. “Yes we can, yes we can change!”
While most opinion polls had predicted an Obama win tonight, his enormous margin of victory came as a surprise. With 99.5 per cent of returns in, Obama had won 55 per cent of the votes cast, against 26 for Clinton and 17 for John Edwards.
Such a poor performance by Clinton is bound to be seen as evidence that the aggressive strategy her campaign pursued in this state backfired.
There was also a startling sign that the wounds inflicted on the Democratic coalition may take some time to heal: a large video screen in the hall here was tuned to CNN and, when the network began broadcasting a Bill Clinton speech, the former president was loudly and lengthily booed.
The margin of Obama’s victory deprived the crowd of at least one moment of drama: the primary had already been called for Obama before the vast majority of his supporters had arrived. But the long line of people waiting to get in heard news of the victory soon after polls closed. So too did those who blasted their car horns in celebration on the city’s streets.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod spoke to reporters, pushing back hard against any effort by the Clinton campaign to suggest the former First Lady had not made a serious bid to win this state.
Describing that idea as “‘laughable,” Axelrod added, “They spent about $8 million, they ran negative ads, they took this very seriously and now they are trying to create the impression that they didn’t.”
Axelrod was equally deprecating of the idea—which Bill Clinton, among others, has seemed to push—that Obama’s win could be seen merely as a byproduct of South Carolina’s large African-American population.
“That’s an attempt to marginalize what cannot be marginalized,” Axelrod said.
He went on to claim that Obama had “galvanized people across the country” and added, “I know that’s a frustrating realization for the other side.”
Obama sought to make a similar point during his speech, saying that as he traveled through the state he hadn’t seen “a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina. I saw South Carolina. I saw crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black and white children alike.”
Attention will now shift to Super Tuesday. It is impossible to know how big a ‘bounce’ Obama will get from tonight’s victory. But he could not have hoped for a much better result.
After his speech, as the Manning High School band played, some supporters lingered in the hall to savor their triumph.
“It’s fantastic,” Thomas Reed, an attorney, enthused. He and his family, he said, were “big Obama supporters. Barack gave a wonderful speech and we are just thrilled.”
Another attorney, Ava Boyd, who is originally from South Carolina but now lives in Washington, D.C., said that tonight’s victory could be vital in the contests to come “because it proves that Obama is a candidate for all people, not just for black people.”
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