Democrats giddy over Obama visit

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama will make his first trip to York County on Thursday with a town hall-style meeting expected to draw more than 1,000 people.

Obama will give a speech and field questions during a lunchtime event at The Freedom Center in downtown Rock Hill. This week, he's rolling out the first of a three-part economic agenda aimed at easing the tax burden on middle-class Americans.

The focus Thursday will be on restoring economic fairness, the campaign said.

Local Democrats have spent months lobbying to get Obama here, figuring that a visit from the charismatic Illinois senator would galvanize their organization and establish York County as a player in the South Carolina primary.

"Keep knocking on the door long enough, and someone answers," said Jim Watkins, chairman of the York County Democratic Party.

Obama is stopping in Rock Hill on his way to Atlanta, where he will headline an afternoon rally at the Georgia World Congress Center.

Neither of the other leading Democratic hopefuls -- Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina -- have visited Rock Hill yet, though party members said they expect both to show up well before the state's Jan. 29 primary.

In fact, Clinton is expected to open a local headquarters in the next few weeks. Obama has already done that; his campaign office on Ebenezer Road houses regional field director Doug Wilson.

Obama last came to South Carolina in late August, when he visited J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon and held a rally in Conway. His wife, Michelle Obama, visited Anderson on Monday.

Freedom's Family Life Center can hold 1,000 people, and tickets are expected to run out by Wednesday morning, said executive director Willie Lyles III. Another 500 can watch from overflow seating in the auditorium.

South Carolina poses a crucial test for Obama because it will be the first primary state with a large percentage of minority voters.

Watkins sees York County as a microcosm of the kind of place where Obama and others must excel, not only in the primary but even more so in the general election.

"You've got suburbs, you've got small towns, diversity in population," he said. "You've got a lot of independents. Any candidate, to do well, has got to get the independent vote these days. You cannot win an election on the back of just partisan voters."

Democrats traditionally focus their efforts on Columbia and the Pee Dee and Lowcountry regions, where strong minority contingents make for fertile political ground.

York County votes solidly Republican, but Democrats who come here can make the argument that they are running legitimate statewide campaigns, not just dropping into selected strongholds, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

"We've had a few Democrats go and visit Greenville/Spartanburg area," Huffmon said. "That's Republican central right there. It's showing that you're campaigning in the entire state. And that goes a long way."

Tickets to the event are free. They can be obtained at The Freedom Center and several other locations. For more information, call (803) 980-0885.