Columbia, South Carolina — I went to Barack Obama’s rally here, on Sunday night, with a Republican friend who had never seen the Illinois senator in action before. Watching the crowd of more than 3,000 fill up the convention center, watching the people send up waves of energy to Obama, and watching him play off that energy in a speech that was one of the best political performances anyone has seen this year, my Republican friend said, simply, “Oh, s–t.” He recalled the scene from Jaws, in which the small seaside town’s sheriff realizes how big the shark he’s tracking truly is, and says, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” What my friend didn’t have to say was that he was deeply worried that Republicans just don’t have a bigger boat.
Drawing 3,000-plus supporters is no big deal for Obama, although it would be a very big deal for a Republican candidate. What was different about the Columbia rally was that, unlike Obama rallies in Iowa or New Hampshire, this one drew large numbers of black voters, who are virtually nonexistent in the other states, but make up about half the Democratic electorate here. Months ago, polls showed blacks in South Carolina supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton. Today, the situation has changed dramatically, with blacks heavily supporting Obama; on Sunday night, the crowd was perhaps 75 or 80 percent black.
Something else changed from Obama’s performances in Iowa and New Hampshire: he has had to incorporate into his stump speech a response to attacks by Bill and Hillary Clinton. “The status quo in Washington is pushing back,” he told the crowd. “That’s what they do — not just the Republican status quo, but the Democratic status quo. They push back.” Now Obama is pushing back, too, but at the convention center he was able to devote significant time to doing so without appearing dragged down into a fight. Instead, he approached it as a comedian would — relentlessly mocking his rivals while making himself seem the only honest, sane, and reasonable person in the race.
“You notice that people who’ve been in Washington too long, they don’t talk like ordinary folks,” Obama began. “We had this debate in Las Vegas, and somebody asked me, ‘What are your weaknesses?’ So I said, ‘Well, you know, I don’t keep track of paper that well, I’m always losing paper, my desk is a mess.’ And then they asked the next two candidates. And one candidate says, ‘Well, my biggest weakness is I’m just so passionate about helping poor people.’ And then the other one says, ‘I’m just so impatient to help the American people solve their problems.’ So then I realize well, I wish I’d gone last and then I would have known.”
Pausing for a moment while the crowd burst into laughter and applause, he continued: “I’m stupid that way, I thought that when they asked what your biggest weakness was, they asked what your biggest weakness was. And now I know that my biggest weakness is I like to help old ladies across the street.”
As the cheering continued, Obama hit Hillary Clinton as someone just too steeped in Washington to be straight with anyone. “People don’t say what they mean when they’ve been in Washington too long,” he said, with a look of mock amazement. “You know, Senator Clinton, during that same debate, somebody asked her about the bankruptcy bill. She voted for a bankruptcy bill in 2001, that the credit cards and the banks had been pushing, that made it more difficult for folks who have been trapped in these unscrupulous loans, where you get zero interest and then suddenly it pops up to 30 percent. And the credit card companies, even though they are sending these things in the mail constantly every day they don’t want you to get out from under that debt. So Tim Russert or somebody asked Senator Clinton, ‘Why did you vote for that bill?’ And she said, ‘Well, I voted for it, but I hoped it didn’t pass.’ What does that mean?”
Again, the crowd cracked up. Obama didn’t have to say anything malicious about Clinton; making her seem ridiculous was good enough.
The next morning, I walked up Gervais Street to the state capitol to catch Obama at the NAACP’s “King Day At The Dome” rally. It was an angry gathering, a complete contrast from the night before. The NAACP has been boycotting the state for years over the decision to relocate the Confederate battle flag from the top of the capitol dome to a more prominent site in front of the building. Speakers railed against the state of South Carolina. Even the invocation was the most political I have ever heard.
”Our nation has gone mad with the fever of war,” Dr. Neal Jones, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia, prayed. “We traded our precious civil liberties for the illusion of security.” Just for good measure, Jones informed God that “our government has been sold to the highest bidders to give tax cuts to the rich.”
The rally was attended by Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards. They were supposed to begin with a march from Zion Baptist Church to the capitol grounds. But Hillary Clinton’s plane was late, and Edwards was nowhere to be seen among the marchers. So Obama was in the middle of the throng, walking among clearly adoring fans toward the capitol.
When he got there, the event — which was supposed to be for all the candidates, and not favor any particular candidacy — was clearly Obama’s for the taking. There was simply no doubt which candidate most of the speakers favored. Dr. Lonnie Randolph, head of the South Carolina state NAACP, pointed to a statue of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the white supremacist governor and U.S. senator, near the Confederate flag. (The inscription at the base of the Tillman statue says, “This monument erected by the legislature, the Democratic Party, and private Citizens of South Carolina.”) Look at that statue and go vote on Saturday, Randolph told the crowd. “The same hands that used to pick cotton in South Carolina will have the opportunity to pick the next president of the United States,” he said. “If you do what you’re supposed to do on the 26th, bigots like Ben Tillman will turn over in their graves.”
Obama spoke first and delivered a short version of the “moral deficit” speech he gave Sunday morning at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It wasn’t nearly as electrifying as his performance at the convention center the night before, but the crowd was all cheers. Obama was followed by Edwards, who was politely received, sort of. When Edwards concluded with “God bless you all,” a man behind me responded, “God bless you, brother!” The man waited just a moment and yelled, “OBAMA!”
Clinton spoke last, and she was able to turn a noisy crowd that just a few minutes earlier had been cheering wildly — responding to Obama with cries of “That’s right!” and “Tell it!” — into a quiet gathering. Nobody booed what she had to say, but there wasn’t much cheering either. As she neared the end of her remarks, Randolph, the timekeeper, inched closer to her, theatrically checking his watch once, then twice, then three times.
South Carolina is the first state in which African Americans, a huge part of the Democratic constituency, will have a chance to vote in big numbers, and they are likely to give Obama his first win since Iowa. After that, who knows? Watching Obama perform at the convention center Sunday night, it’s easy to understand why Bill Clinton is walking around with a look of red-faced frustration these days. Obama represents a mortal threat to his wife’s candidacy, and, given the identity politics that prevail in the Democratic Party, it will be hard to cut his legs out from under him without appearing racist. But there’s no doubt that some Republicans are hoping the Clintons will succeed. Running against the man on stage at the convention center would be a hard, hard campaign, requiring a very big boat.
– Byron York is the NR White House correspondent.