Barack Obama won the bruising South Carolina primary yesterday, braking Hillary Clinton's momentum with a crushing victory in the first Southern contest.
Obama's better than 2-1 triumph was the most lopsided of the young primary season. It is likely to be read as a sharp repudiation of the campaign activities of Clinton and her husband, the former president, who were widely seen as using tactics designed to polarize the election along racial lines.
The magnitude of his victory is likely to give Obama an enormous boost heading into the biggest primary day in history, on Feb. 5, when 22 states vote. However, it appears increasingly likely that the race will continue well beyond that date, to primaries in Maryland and Virginia, on Feb. 12, and perhaps far into the spring.
In his victory speech, Obama claimed vindication, saying that South Carolina proved that his Iowa win earlier this month was not "a fluke" and, echoing the main theme of his candidacy, said Americans are "hungry for change and ready to believe again."
"After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans that we've seen in a long, long time," he said, to chants of "Race doesn't matter" from supporters in Columbia, S.C.
Then he ripped the Clintons. Without mentioning them by name, he made it plain that he would not soon forget what he earlier described as their deliberate distortion of his words.
"We are up against decades of bitter partisanship that cause politicians to demonize their opponents. ... It's the kind of partisanship where you're not even allowed to say that a Republican had an idea - even if it's one you never agreed with," Obama said. "That's the kind of politics that is bad for our party, it is bad for our country and this is our chance to end it once and for all."
In another clear reference to the Clintons, Obama said he was "up against the idea that it's acceptable to say anything and do anything to win an election" and called that "exactly what's wrong with our politics."
Deploring what he called "cynical talk" that various races couldn't work together, he said that "the choice in this election ... is not about black versus white. The choice is between the past and the future."
Blacks made up just over half of the South Carolina electorate, and Obama won four of every five of their votes, according to an Election Day poll of voters as they left polling places.
But the Illinois senator did substantially better among whites than he had in pre-election polling. He won among whites under 30. He also won nearly as many white male votes as Clinton, who wound up finishing closer to third-place John Edwards in the total vote than she did to Obama.
Obama did particularly well among younger voters, winning two-thirds of those under age 45. Clinton came out ahead only among voters over 65.
For months, Clinton had led in South Carolina, until Obama became a winner in Iowa. A memo to reporters from Clinton's campaign, released yesterday afternoon, noted that Obama had been ahead by 12 percentage points in recent South Carolina polling, suggesting that the Clinton forces did not expect the drubbing she would get.
Clinton, who left South Carolina before the polls closed, issued a written statement last night. It said she had phoned Obama to congratulate him, it looked to future contests, especially those on Super Tuesday, when more than half the pledged convention delegates will be awarded.
"In the days ahead," she said, "I will focus on the solutions needed to move this country forward. That's what this election is about."
Her husband, campaigning in Independence, Mo., said Obama "won fair and square." In what could be taken as an attempt to minimize Obama's success, he added: "Now we go to February 5th, when millions of Americans finally get into the act."
Clinton and her husband were also talking up Tuesday's non-binding vote in Florida, which she is expected to win, even though none of the candidates have campaigned there. The Florida primary violates national party rules and won't immediately result in any delegates being awarded.
In South Carolina, excitement generated by the '08 campaign drew large numbers of new voters and a record turnout that was near double that of four years ago. About one in four voters yesterday said they had never participated in a primary or never voted at all. Obama won a majority of their votes.
Obama's dominance among black voters will make him the favorite in other Southern states, where African-Americans make up a large portion of the electorate. He planned campaign stops today in Alabama and Georgia, where he will be favored to win on Feb. 5.
The harsh tone of the South Carolina campaign appeared to benefit Obama, who got more votes than his two rivals combined from those who made up their minds in the final three days of the campaign, when the contest was particularly heated.
Three times as many voters blamed Clinton, rather than Obama, for unfair campaign attacks. But many more voters - fully half the electorate - said both candidates were at fault, according to the exit poll.
A residue of hard feelings left by the South Carolina contest could be glimpsed in another exit-poll finding. Almost one in four voters (23 percent) said they'd be dissatisfied, if Clinton became the nominee. A smaller proportion (17 percent) said they'd be disappointed, if Obama won.
Edwards, a South Carolina native who won the state's primary four years ago, got fewer votes than he did last time. He did well enough to win delegates, however, which are awarded to candidates who draw at least 15 percent of the vote.
Edwards' ability to remain viable will become a focus of his campaign in coming days, as he tries to avoid being eliminated as a factor in the delegate chase. His first campaign event today will be in Dublin, Ga., signaling his intention to target rural congressional districts in Super Tuesday states.
Some of the nation's most populous states will hold contests that day, including California, the largest of all. Obama's home state of Illinois and Clinton's adopted home state of New York will also vote, along with Missouri, a key prize in presidential elections.
In an op-ed piece published in today's New York Times, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg endorses Obama, saying he is a leader, like her father, capable of inspiring people to be "hopeful about America."
In the days leading up to the South Carolina vote, Clinton and her husband campaigned hard to win the state. Because of the high proportion of black voters, there had been speculation that she might cede it to Obama.
Clinton did spend time last week in Super Tuesday states. But she returned for two days of campaigning leading up to the primary, and her husband was highly visible - and audible - throughout the South Carolina fight.
Obama has generated support for his candidacy by telling supporters that they are part of a movement that has its roots in other historic crusades, including the civil rights drive of the mid-20th century.
The Clintons, pushing her argument that experience in government counts more than inspirational rhetoric, made the case that it took a president, Lyndon Johnson, to put Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream into law.
That argument, and Bill Clinton's attack on Obama's antiwar stance as "a fairy tale," led some in the black community to view the Clinton tactics as a racially tinged challenge to the election of the first American-American president.
The state's most influential Democrat and highest-ranking African-American in Congress, Rep. Jim Clyburn, said last night on MSBN, "Racial politics were injected into this campaign in a way that was very unnerving to me."
Hillary Clinton: 249
John Edwards: 58
Needed to nominate: 2,025
Chosen thus far: 502
Yet to be chosen: 3,457
[Source: Associated Press]
*Includes unpledged delegates and "superdelegates"
South Carolina Primary
Democrats (99% reporting)
x-Barack Obama: 55 percent
Hillary Clinton: 27 percent
John Edwards: 18 percent