Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Candidates steer clear of race issue in S. Carolina

THE GUARDIAN , CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA

With a full-sized biplane poking through a hangar wall, Democratic presidential hopeful US Senator John Kerry gestures while addressing a rally at the Fargo Air Museum in Fargo, North Dakota on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

When US Senator John Kerry received the endorsement last week of US Representative Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's only black congressman, he was anxious to portray his latest prominent supporter not just as an ally but a friend.

"I've gotten to know Jim over the last couple of years," said Kerry, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I learned how to talk over the loud noise in the garage at a fish fry. And to dance a bit late at night, and have some mighty good fish."

Clyburn interjected with a playful putdown: "I wouldn't call that dancing."

Like half of a double act Kerry waited for the laughter to subside and responded: "I thought for a white guy I showed some rhythm."

Welcome to electioneering Southern style, where talk of what unites most Southerners -- food, religion, geography -- is evoked to mask the issue that divides them: race.

And in few places is this more true than in South Carolina, the first state to leave the union and help spark a civil war in the 19th century, and the last to keep the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of its capitol building, in Columbia.

In a primary where half the electorate is black, a candidate cannot avoid the issue.

In a state where Republicans use racism as a wedge to appeal to poor whites, it is the last thing Democrat candidates who want to get elected will talk about honestly.

Today's vote in South Carolina is one of seven across the country; there are also primaries in Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri and Delaware and caucuses in New Mexico and North Dakota.

South Carolina may not send the most delegates to the national convention which will ultimately anoint the presidential nominee, but all the candidates acknowledge that the state has huge symbolic importance.

In the past week the candidates have weaved through black churches and white neighborhoods talking about healing the nation without ever addressing the gaping wound before them.

"They're not going to talk about it unless they absolutely have to," says Kymm Hunter, who works at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia.

"Racism's still strong here so they just won't tell it like it is."

Hunter is voting for the Reverend Al Sharpton, the only black in the race, who breaks the race taboo, sometimes with frustration but more often with humor.

"I'm the son of a man who couldn't be a mill worker because of the color of his skin," he told John Edwards, the North Carolina senator and Democratic hopeful who makes much of his humble upbringing, at a recent debate.

Two days later he said: "If he thinks it's a long distance from a mill house to the White House he should think about how far it is from the outhouse of the mill house to the White House."

If race describes a difference between the voters, economics and electability define the issues motivating them. Sharpton has coined the best lines of the campaign as he has been working through the churches and black colleges of South Carolina for several months.

But the latest Zogby tracking poll puts him fourth among black voters. The erratic polls nonetheless tell one essential story.

Whatever the differences between the South and the rest of the country and within the South itself, when it comes to this primary race Democrats share one overriding concern: they loathe US President George W. Bush with more intensity than they love any of the candidates.

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