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Last Updated: Friday, 25 January 2008, 14:18 GMT
Not black and white in South Carolina
By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, South Carolina

I'm not sure what tone the Chicago Daily Tribune struck in its coverage of the presidential elections in 1952, but I imagine it was probably rather cautious.

Barack Obama campaigns in South Carolina
Mr Obama is playing down race to appeal to a broader vote

The Tribune, you may remember, was the hapless newspaper which paid too much attention to the opinion polls in 1948 and went to press on election night with the headline "Dewey defeats Truman".

Within hours, it was clear that Truman had won, and won comfortably.

Those of us covering the 2008 campaign had the modern equivalent of the Tribune's experience in New Hampshire, where it seemed so obvious that Barack Obama was heading for a comfortable win, and where in fact Hillary Clinton won comfortably.

So it is in chastened mood that I report, once again, that Senator Obama has a comfortable lead in the opinion polls ahead of Saturday's Democratic Party primary in South Carolina.

Former Senator John Edwards campaigns in South Carolina
John Edwards' aides say he is not getting a fair amount of TV time

His average lead is 11%, and one survey has him 15 points ahead of Senator Clinton.

No-one gives more than 19% to John Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and who represented the neighbouring state of North Carolina in the Senate.

If he cannot do well here, then his struggling campaign is surely doomed.

Identity politics

But it is the battle between the Clinton and Obama camps which continues to dominate the headlines - a source of frustration to Mr Edwards' supporters who find paid-for television advertising time a strain on their budget, but whose man is not getting as much free airtime on news bulletins as they think he should.

One reason why Mr Obama is ahead here has to do with the politics of identity.

About a third of South Carolina's population and perhaps half of its registered Democrats are African-American.

Population graphic

It seems likely that they will rally behind the first black politician in history to have a credible chance of winning the White House.

The way in which the two campaigns handle the politics of identity is fascinating.

It is clearly the case that among Democrats, Barack Obama can expect the support of most African-Americans and it is probably the case that Mrs Clinton enjoys the same advantage among the party's women.

But Mr Obama does not want to be seen as a Black Candidate - rather as a good candidate, who has the energy and vision to refresh US society, and who just happens to be black.

It is a point I have heard his wife Michelle make, on occasion.

This means Mr Obama has to find ways to shore up his support among his core demographic, while also reaching beyond it, something he has been very good at so far.

Mrs Clinton has a similar, if slightly easier, problem.

Gender factor

The very fact that she is a woman with a real chance of winning the White House gives women voters the power to vote for an enormous change.

She does not really have to make the point too explicitly. I have met lots of older women - including some who do not particularly warm to the senator - who did not feel they had fair opportunities in education and employment when they were younger.

They would love to see a woman in the White House in their lifetime.

Mr Obama (r) and Mrs Clinton during a televised debate
The candidates themselves are not above a little direct mud-slinging

All this, of course, means that the most interesting group in the South Carolina electorate are those black women who face a choice of two options, either of which would make history.

How they choose between the prospect of the first black president, and the first woman, may well decide this race.

We know how difficult that choice will be from the experience of the TV presenter Oprah Winfrey, who campaigned hard for Mr Obama before the Iowa caucus, but has since adopted a much lower profile.

That seems to be the result of criticism from women within Oprah's extensive fan base, who were annoyed that Ms Winfrey had not backed the woman candidate.

One contributor to the Oprah message board said she had put her race before her gender, and called it "treachery".

Making history

South Carolina too has exposed the strained relations between the Clinton and Obama camps.

Former President Bill Clinton - who remained here on the campaign trail this week when his wife decamped to California - has been riling Mr Obama's supporters for weeks with his attacks on the Illinois senator's voting record - most famously when he described Mr Obama's claim to have consistently opposed the Iraq war as "the biggest fairy-tale I ever heard".

It became clear during the latest televised debate from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, earlier this week that the candidates themselves are not above a little direct mud-slinging.

It was bad-tempered stuff - but great TV, of course - with her accusing him of having represented a slum landlord and him portraying her as a fat-cat corporate lawyer with a seat on the board of one of the largest corporations in the US.

Each accused the other of having too much enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan, patron saint of modern Republicanism and a real bogeyman for Democrats.

Whoever fails to win the nomination is going to be expected to make some kind of speech supporting whoever does.

But at the moment it is hard to imagine that being done with much enthusiasm.

As to who will be making that speech, and who will be the subject of it - we certainly won't know after South Carolina, and we probably won't even know after Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states will hold simultaneous primaries.

Tetchy, riveting and with the potential to make history, the Democratic campaign of 2008 has a long way to run.

Indicators graphic

Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama clash during a TV debate

Select from the list below to view state level results.

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