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Democrats Flock to Rep. Jim Clyburn's Fish Fry

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up: a postcard from a fishing village in Oman. But first, the day after their full-pledged debate, the Democratic presidential candidates are still in South Carolina. That state's primary has been moved earlier in the calendar to January 29, just a week after New Hampshire. And whoever wins, South Carolina could get a boost going into the February 5th national primary - that's when big states like New York, New Jersey and California vote.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

(Soundbite of drum corps)

MARA LIASSON: A high school drum corps greeted the candidates as they entered the convention center in Columbia last night for the state Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

LIASSON: John Edwards who won the primary here in 2004, was surrounded by a large crowd of chanting supporters.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

LIASSON: Then Hillary Clinton came in, walking past the billboard-sized photographs of herself that filled up the lobby.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

LIASSON: And there was Barack Obama, who made a low-key entrance, but quickly attracted a large scrum as he walked down the hall.

Unidentified Woman #1: You're the man. You are the man.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I appreciate it. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

Unindentified Woman #2: But the really important political event in South Carolina tonight is happening right here, less than a mile from the convention center in a parking garage. This is Congressman Jim Clyburn's famous Fish Fry, the kind of down-home South Carolina-after party. And right now, fired up South Carolina Democrats are doing the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

LIASSON: The drinks are cold and the menu is simple, fried whiting on soft-white bread with hot sauce and lobsters. Jim Clyburn, the most powerful black politician in the state and the only African-American member of the congressional delegation is the master of ceremony. Every Democrat wants his endorsement. And that's why so many of them show up at the Fish Fry. Last night, Clyburn got six candidates to squeeze themselves onto a stage the size the (unintelligible) van.

Unidentified Man #1: The governor of New Mexico.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson doesn't usually get to address the crowd this size on the campaign trail.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): Is it necessary to protect the president of the United States?

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: The ranking(ph) crowd of Democrats who jammed into the Fish Fry last night seemed to agree with Richardson. They're optimistic about winning the White House and very happy with their choices. Wilbert Cave(ph) hasn't made up his mind yet, although, last time he voted for the only native South Carolinian in the race - John Edwards.

Mr. WILBERT CAVE (Resident, South Carolina): Then the fact that we need to address the issue of poverty and his concern for rural America because that's where I'm from, rural America. Those things I like. I like all the others too. It's just exciting. It's really been a long time since we've had this kind of choice.

LIASSON: Cave reflects Democrats' sentiments nationwide. According to a Wall Street Journal poll, about three quarters of Democrats say they like the Democratic field; only about half of Republicans feel that way about their choices.

One of the most intense rivalries in the South Carolina race is between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Between the two of them, they represent the unusual demographic of the South Carolina primary. Fifty percent of Democratic voters here are African-American, 35 percent are white women. Not surprisingly, Obama has a strong poll for blacks here, including Jim Clyburn.

Representative JIM CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): What was I fighting for back in the '60s? What was I going to jail for? I was going to jail for people like Obama to be where he is and to do what he's doing. And so all of that's going to be going through my mind; it's been going through my mind already.

LIASSON: Clyburn has no plans to endorse any candidate anytime soon. But in Greenville yesterday where Hillary Clinton held a town hall meeting, Peggy Baxter(ph) had already decided.

Ms. PEGGY BAXTER (Resident, South Carolina): I made up my mind. I'm going to work Barack Obama. Where he not in the race, I would certainly see working for Hillary, but I'm happy he's there. I like what he's saying. And I like the way he's energizing young people.

LIASSON: For Baxter, race trumped gender.

Ms. BAXTER: In this situation, the fact that Barack is an African-American man - I had to line up with him.

LIASSON: But Hillary Clinton also has plenty of African-American support, including this 72-year-old man who reached for the mic at the town hall meeting.

Unidentified Man #2: We, in South Carolina, we love you and your husband.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Hopeful): Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: South Carolina needs jobs.

Sen. CLINTON: That's right.

Unidentified Man: South Carolina needs help, and you are the answer beside God.

Sen. CLINTON: Thank you, sir. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton's support in the African-American community appears to be strongest among older voters. Barack Obama is reaching out to younger blacks who may not have participated in politics before. And John Edwards is trying hard to recreate the success he had in his native state three years ago. And that means that over the next nine months, South Carolina Democrats will receive more attention than they ever have before.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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United States & World Weekend Edition Saturday
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.