WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When Hillary Rodham Clinton started running for president, Wanjulia Ezekiel was thrilled.
"I was looking forward to the advancement of a female," she said.
But Sen. Barack Obama is getting her vote in this week's Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina.
"He speaks to the possibility that I dreamed about as a child," explained the 40-year- old civil engineer from Columbia, the state capital.
With Democrats on track to select either the party's first female or black presidential nominee, polls have suggested that black women such as Ezekiel are torn by conflicting loyalties to race and gender.
In interviews, some black voters have said that they were supporting the New York senator because they did not believe that Obama could get elected amid lingering racism in America.
But as the Democratic contest narrows to a two-person race, and Obama showed that he could win white votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, voters are swinging behind him in impressive numbers.
"I understand that many of you are still a little skeptical," Obama, an Illinois senator, told a Martin Luther King Jr. banquet in Las Vegas last week. "But not as skeptical as you were before Iowa. Sometimes it takes other folks before we believe ourselves."
Election Day polling in recent Democratic contests has shown him with up to 80 percent of the black vote.
If Obama comes close to those margins in South Carolina, he'll likely win the Democrats' first Southern primary. Blacks are expected to cast half, or more, of the votes in Saturday's primary.
Obama returned to South Carolina last night, after preaching at Ebenezer Baptist, King's old church, in Atlanta earlier in the day. There, he alluded to a recent racially tinged debate with the Clinton camp "that served to obscure the issues, instead of illuminating the critical choices we face as a nation. None of our hands are clean."
But he opened a more aggressive phase of his campaign yesterday while addressing a racially diverse crowd of about 2,500 a few blocks from the Statehouse in Columbia, accusing Hillary and Bill Clinton of intentionally distorting his words. His sharper language signaled Obama's intention to counter what is expected to be an all-out campaign this week by former President Clinton to rally black support for his wife's candidacy around the state.
Clinton, Obama and John Edwards are to meet in a debate at 8 p.m. today in Myrtle Beach, S.C., sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute.
In spite of Obama's clear advantage among black voters, some independent analysts say the primary is not out of reach for Clinton. She is working to hold down his margins among blacks, while hoping to peel white support away from Edwards, who said yesterday on CNN that he got his "butt kicked" in Nevada, and is struggling to remain a factor.
Clinton supporter Don Fowler, a former national Democratic chairman who teaches politics at the University of South Carolina, said this state is an uphill struggle for Clinton.
"The support is not enthusiastic and jumping and surging like Obama's, but she's got a lot of support here," he said.
One of Clinton's top black supporters, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, is campaigning in South Carolina this week. In an interview, she said she's telling black voters that "we're making history both ways," and that Clinton's experience and "her passion and her heart" make her the better choice.
As Obama's candidacy has taken off, Clinton's support among black voters has plummeted. A national poll last week by Opinion Research Corp. for CNN showed her trailing Obama by a 2-to-1 margin among blacks nationally.
Female voters have been the key to Clinton's recent primary and caucus victories, and black women have been slower to gravitate to Obama than black men. But Obama's recent gains among black women have outpaced those among black men.
Last October, Obama was running 33 percentage points behind Clinton among black women. He now leads by 9 percentage points among that group.
Black men favor Obama by a much wider margin, better than 3-to-1, according to the national poll.
Jimmy Thompson, 53, a state government worker from West Columbia, said he had been leaning toward Clinton at one point but is now solidly for Obama.
"It's really about who he is and his values, and the change that he is talking about," he said after early Sunday services at Brookland Baptist Church, one of the state's largest black congregations.
Some Clinton supporters say she needs as much as 40 percent of the black vote to win here, and her campaign has been pushing to halt further erosion among black women.
For more than two weeks, Clinton has aired commercials on black-oriented radio stations that feature an endorsement by Jacqueline Jackson, the wife of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
"Women are used to making difficult choices, but this is easy because it's about what's best for our families," Jackson says in the ad, calling Clinton "by far the most qualified candidate." Jackson also points out that her husband is a South Carolina native. In his 1984 and 1988 presidential runs, Jesse Jackson won this state; he is supporting Obama but has not been asked to take an active part in the campaign.
Recent statewide polling puts Obama ahead of Clinton by about 10 percentage points. Some Democrats think recent sniping between the Clinton and Obama camps might have accelerated the movement of black voters to Obama.
Clinton's remark that it "took a president," Lyndon B. Johnson, to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964 was widely taken as a slap at King. Former President Clinton also was accused by some black commentators of making a veiled attack on the prospect of a black president when he described Obama's anti-war position as "a fairy tale."
Then, last weekend during Hillary Clinton's visit to a black church in South Carolina, a wealthy supporter, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, alluded to Obama's teenage drug use. Johnson also derisively called Obama "Sidney" - referring to the character played by Sidney Poitier in the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner - and jabbed at Obama's efforts to appear "reasonable, likable" in appealing for votes.
Clinton and her campaign defended Johnson for days before he apologized. Some analysts called the running debate a deliberate attack on Obama's attempt to run a campaign in which race is not an issue and an effort by the Clintons to marginalize him as a black candidate.
That could be extremely damaging to Obama, said Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University professor who specializes in African-American politics, pointing out that Obama cannot win on black votes alone.
"The question I have is to what extent that dust-up may have defined him in the eyes of non- blacks as moving too close to being a black candidate," he said.
Obama has been getting about 20 percent of the white vote in recent South Carolina polls and cannot afford to alienate white voters, added Ransom, who said the primary might still be up for grabs.
"I don't think it's over," he said.