COLUMBIA -- Barack Obama cruised to a decisive victory in South Carolina's presidential primary Saturday with overwhelming support from black voters and about one-fourth of whites as well, a rout that leaves Hillary Clinton humbled and John Edwards staggering.
Clinton and her husband, the former president, fought hard in the final days to overtake the Illinois senator, or at least come close in a state where polls found she was the front-runner just last month.
Instead, she finished a distant second to Obama, while former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards ran third. Edwards' showing in his native state, where he won the 2004 primary, is a potentially lethal blow to his already-underdog campaign.
With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had 55 percent of the vote to Clinton's 27 percent. Edwards had 18 percent. Exit polls showed Obama won almost every age, ideological and income group.
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The result sets up a showdown between Obama, and Clinton in 22 states and American Samoa on Feb. 5, when primaries and caucuses will award a total of 1,678 pledged delegates. A candidate needs 2,205 delegates to be nominated.
Clinton tried mightily to create a no-lose scenario in South Carolina, leaving the state in mid-week to visit several Feb. 5 states while her husband, the former president, campaigned full-time in South Carolina, then returning herself Thursday for a final, frenetic 48 hours of campaigning.
That would leave her campaign free to frame a comeback victory, if she scored one, as an upset, and explain second place as respectable, given expectations and the fact that she'd not been here full-time. But a loss is a loss, and the breadth of Obama's win clearly braked whatever momentum she'd gained before.
On Saturday night, Obama framed the election as "the past versus the future" as he claimed victory in front of wildly cheering supporters chanting "Yes We Can" in Columbia.
"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 we've seen in a long, long time," Obama said.
"You can see it in the faces here tonight," citing the diverse crowd of supporters surrounding him, all races, and heavy with young people.
Obama seemed to be targeting Clinton when he said, "We are up against the conventional thinking that says your ability to lead as president comes from longevity in Washington or proximity to the White House."
Clinton called Obama early Saturday evening to congratulate him and issued a statement looking ahead to Florida's Tuesday primary and the Feb. 5 contests. "In the days ahead," she said, "I'll work to give voice to those who are working harder than ever to be heard."
In South Carolina, she found she could not match the passion Obama stirred in the black community, where he fired up emotions rarely seen in politics. Roughly 55 percent of the state's primary voters were black, and many of them came to see the effort by Obama, a black, as a movement as much as a campaign.
Obama won an estimated 78 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls, while Clinton got 19 percent and Edwards 2 percent.
Supporters praised him in enthusiastic, even lofty terms.
"Nothing against Clinton, but Obama is making history," said
Charlene Thompson, a Columbia purchasing agent.
Clinton's loss is hardly a fatal blow, but it's a setback, particularly among black voters. Many said they were uneasy with anti-Obama comments this month from both Clintons, which they saw as nasty and demeaning.
Obama, Bill Clinton said in one widely noted comment, was engaging in a "the biggest fairy tale that I have ever seen" when describing the history of his Iraq war positions. Hillary Clinton also riled many black voters by saying, "Dr. (Martin Luther) King's dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act." Critics saw that as marginalizing Dr. King and condescending to black activism.
The Clinton rhetoric cooled by week's end, and the couple waded into the heart of the black community to try to slow Obama's momentum.
Clinton had another challenge here -- to woo the white vote as native-son Edwards and his barnstorming bus tour crisscrossed the state. He did well only with white men, where he topped Clinton and Obama with 45 percent.
Edwards told supporters in Columbia he's continuing in the race. "We're giving voice to all those Americans whose voices are not being heard," he said. "Their voices were heard today in South Carolina."
Edwards rallied voters at places like Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville with his homespun talk and his disdain for the Obama-Clinton personal battles.
"Our party needs somebody speaking in a loud clear voice for all those Americans struggling to survive," he said in a typical statement.
Edwards was hurt by a widespread perception that he can't win the nomination.
"I like Edwards and that image of an underdog. But on the other hand, his status makes me back off and wonder why he's not doing better," said Barbara Jolley, a Rock Hill secretary.
Clinton was helped by a trend that's sustained her through every contest so far: Strength among women voters, but it didn't help her enough. Obama beat her among all women, but Clinton polled an estimated 42 percent of white women, compared to 36 percent for Edwards and 22 percent for Obama.