South Carolina: Inside the 'Black Primary' | The Nation


South Carolina: Inside the 'Black Primary'

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Across town in Obama's cramped and bustling Spartanburg office--a converted attic upstairs from the local Democratic Party headquarters--it was a whole 'nother story. "Pull up a chair, honey," said Carolyn Reed-Smith, an elementary teacher working the phones at a folding table. "I had been really drawn to Hillary at first," she explained. "Because I voted for her husband. I thought, 'Wow! Now we'll have him and her.'" But then in June Obama came to Reed-Smith's church, Mount Moriah Baptist, and made a convert. "He had such a calming presence. It's sort of biblical, but I believe in men having dominion and having some sort of mystical power that God gave them," she said. "I believe Barack has acquired that."

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Bob Moser
Bob Moser, a Nation contributing writer, is editor of The Texas Observer and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South'...

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To Reed-Smith, the questions about Obama's "blackness" actually point up one of his most important assets. "I believe that he has the best of two cultures within him. He has had such loving nurturing from our African culture, and then I think from the Caucasian culture he has the wit and intellect that's so sharp. I just think that both of those things together, it's the best of both worlds that he has within him. I just felt like I would rather work to see that he gets the presidency."

And work she does--every spare moment. Reed-Smith is one of some 15,000 true believers statewide fueling Obama's unconventional volunteer-driven campaign. While Obama has snagged his share of endorsements and sweet-talked his share of preachers--and while he's matched Clinton's top-level staffing with forty paid professionals--the focus has been on person-to-person, ground-level contact between volunteers and their neighbors. That's made it easier for Obama's campaign to calibrate its appeals to the complicated mix of black politics. "The mistake Democrats always make," says Huffmon, "is seeing blacks here as monolithic and as more liberal than they are. Obama's campaign hasn't organized around the stereotypes." Along with the usual church network, the campaign has put together a Main Street network of more than 900 black barber shops and beauty salons, among other innovations. "There's not been retail politics in the past here, at least not like Iowa or New Hampshire," says Amaya Smith, Obama's South Carolina press secretary. "People still get information from their churches, but here they're getting it directly from folks like this."

Folks like Sheila Davis. At a tiny desk by the window, the Naval Reserve officer is meticulously inking posters advertising The 'O' Factor: Obama & Oprah.

"The very first time I heard him speak," Davis says, "he said something to the effect of, 'We don't have the right to be tired.' That really hit home with me. That touched my heart. We really don't have the right to be tired. Because our forefathers, our foreparents, worked so hard to get us where we are now. I don't care what we have going on in our lives, we still have to make time for what's important. And this is important." It's not only the first campaign she's worked on, Davis says. "It's the first campaign I have ever had a desire to work on." While she emphasizes that she "did a great deal of research" into Obama's issues, Davis also sees something broader at stake.

"Coming from a military family, I'm used to working with all kinds of people to accomplish one mission. He wants to unite everybody. That's the type of work I'm used to doing. Working with all people, to fulfill a mission. So we share a lot of the same ideas--his are just on a larger scale than mine!"

She laughs, then sighs. "I just admire him. I admire him. Can I say that enough?"

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