The African-American Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, is facing the test on his popularity among black voters as the South Carolina primary kicked off on Saturday, the first in the South for Democrats.
The state with a population of more than 4 million, nearly 30 percent of which is black people, is considered a "must-win" to the Illinois Senator Obama, since he has lost New Hampshire and Nevada to New York Senator and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and needs to restore his momentum before "Super Tuesday" on Feb. 5, when a total 22 states stage at the same time their 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses.
"South Carolina is important for Democrats for the same reason it's important for Republicans: It's the state where the base speaks," CNN political analyst Bill Schneider said. "In the Republican case, that means conservatives. For the Democrats, that means African-Americans."
A recent poll released by MSNBC showed Obama's widened lead with 41 percent of the likely Democratic voters, 15 percentage points higher than Clinton, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards remained at the third place with 19 percent.
Although the poll also showed more support of black voters, who account for about half of Democratic voters in the state, for Obama rather than Clinton, the primary's final result will not come before 7 p.m. EST when the polling stations close.
The Democratic race heated up in the past week as Obama and Clinton were caught in a fierce oral fight, charging each other's record and integrity, and their spouse were also dragged into the spat.
In the CNN-sponsored TV debate, Obama accused the Clintons of making false assertion against him, saying "what people are looking for right now is someone who is going to solve problems and not resort to the same typical politics that we've seen in Washington."
Clinton talked back immediately and insisted "your record and what you say should matter."
The tension was wound up as Clinton's campaign aired a radio ad in the state suggesting Obama approved of Republican ideas. Obama responded with his own radio spot accusing "Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected."
Calling it "one-to-two game," Obama jabbed former President Bill Clinton for his aggressive role in his wife's bid for the White House.
To balance the game, Michelle Obama joined her husband in talking back to the rival couple, saying on a Thursday rally " Barack Obama isn't relying on a former president of the United States to campaign for him. He's relying on ... hundreds of thousands of people like us who are giving whatever they can afford to support this movement."
However, Bill Clinton dismissed Obama's charge and accused in a TV interview him and the media of having stirred up tensions over race in response to some Democrats' criticisms of the Clintons' strategies.
During CNN TV debate, Edwards reminded audience of three candidates not two were on the stage. It sounded like a joke but the winner of the 2004 South Carolina primary is struggling to prove he is not a joke in the second bid.
"Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have brought their New York and Chicago-style politics to South Carolina. Fighting with each other, tearing each other down," he said at a Friday campaign event. "But South Carolina is better than that, and you deserve better than that."
Edwards is seen to take advantage of Clinton-Obama charge exchange to shorten his distance with the first tier. As a candidate not black or female, he is trying to play the "native-born" card in the state whose primary is considered to be determined by race and gender.
South Carolina is also seen as a "must-win" to Edwards after he was ended at only 4 percent in the previous caucuses in Nevada.