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Area candidates tap into Obama effect

When Herb Crump kicked off his campaign for the state House on Saturday, he promised a departure from "politics as usual" in South Carolina.

A drive through southern Rock Hill turns up roadside signs emblazoned with the words "Change You Can Believe In" from S.C. Senate candidate Michael Squirewell.

Another Senate hopeful, Leah Moody, tells audiences that her first run for elected office is about making sure "It's a New Day" in Columbia.

Across York County and much of South Carolina this election season, candidates share a common theme: They're following the lead of Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who seeks a new era in American politics.

Democrats are hoping the Obama juggernaut translates into swelled turnout and big gains in the typically red Palmetto State. They note that 125,000 more people voted in January's Democratic primary than in the general election four years earlier.

In the case of Squirewell, who lost in last week's Democratic primary, the words are ripped directly from Obama's own campaign signs and speeches. Others are devising their own riffs, but the message is similar.

"One of the reasons I'm running for coroner is because of Barack," said Pete Skidmore, a private investigator from Fort Mill. "He talked about change, and that's what got me energized in thinking about what changes need to be made here. A fresh start, if you will."

Skidmore's connection to the candidate is stronger than most. His son, Pete Jr., is a military veteran who introduced Obama at three campaign stops in South Carolina. The family became friendly with Obama and still keeps in touch with his staffers.

Spillover from Tar Heel state?

The Obama effect might be more pronounced in York County than anywhere else in the state. That's because Obama intends to compete this fall in North Carolina, potentially by spending major bucks on TV commercials in the Charlotte market.

York and other areas just south of the state line fall into that market, meaning the millions invested by Obama could drive up turnout even in places where his campaign isn't trying.

"We've been told for so long that South Carolina is not winnable, York County is not winnable," said former Obama volunteer Willie Lyles of Rock Hill. "If John McCain's base is depressed and the Democratic base comes out, who knows what could happen?"

Probing the racial dynamic

The trend has undeniable racial dimensions. Many of the candidates echoing Obama's themes are African-Americans running in districts with sizable black constituencies. Democrats with different audiences aren't as eager to hitch themselves to the Obama bandwagon.

State Senate hopeful Mandy Powers Norrell knows she must make inroads with white, working-class voters in southern Lancaster County to offset Republican strength in more affluent Fort Mill.

Norrell, a political newcomer, endorsed John Edwards during the primary and has since kept her distance from Obama. She faces Mick Mulvaney for the District 16 Senate seat formerly held by Greg Gregory.

"I think it will do a lot for turnout on both sides," Norrell said recently. "There will be some people who turn out to vote against him. You just hear people talking."

Norrell's caution mirrors a larger phenomenon, says Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University.

"Nobody knows how rural Southerners are going to react to having an African-American at the top of the ticket," said Cooper. "Some of these candidates are kind of holding back and waiting to see what happens."

Republicans: Make it local

For Republicans, the key to overcoming a potential Obama tidal wave is to localize issues as much as possible, says State Rep. Gary Simrill, a 16-year incumbent who faces Crump this fall.

"It's not me going up against Obama, per se," said Simrill. "South Carolina politics are different than national politics. My beliefs are in line with what my district thinks. That's been put to the test eight different times. It's important to keep it on the level of those you represent."

Predictions of a heavy turnout on Obama's side contrast with the generally tepid support among conservatives for Republican nominee John McCain. In a speech to York County Democrats, U.S. Rep. John Spratt gave voice to the optimism rippling through his party this year.

"What's the magic word? Turnout," he said. "If you can get your people out for your races, you can help (other) people on the ticket. And that's the way we can take back our country."

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