Oprah Winfrey came to South Carolina on Sunday with a message tailored to the state's considerable African-American community, asking it to cast aside doubt and support the black man she assured them could -- and should -- be elected president.
On the second day of Barack Obama and Winfrey's tour of early-voting states, the two turned out the biggest crowd yet of the election campaign, an exuberant and overwhelmingly African-American audience that filled about a third of a football stadium and organizers said exceeded 29,000. The scale of the event rivaled the largest campaign rallies in recent history.
Later Sunday, on a cold, dark night with snow in the forecast, Obama and Winfrey drew considerably fewer people in Manchester, N.H., where curiosity appeared to be a strong factor in attracting a sizable but less-than-capacity turnout.
Obama had drawn energy from the South Carolina crowd, stretching out his arm and holding the microphone to the audience to capture its roar. At times, the metal bleachers behind him rumbled under stomping feet.
Messages rich with hope
While mostly avoiding explicit racial references, Winfrey placed Obama's campaign in the long struggle of African-Americans for equality, drawing from Martin Luther King's most famous civil rights speech.
"Dr. King dreamed a dream. But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore," Winfrey said. "We get to vote that dream into reality."
The contest for the political loyalties of African-Americans will be crucial in the South Carolina primary, a key early-voting state where blacks made up about half of the electorate in the last Democratic presidential primary.
The state's African-American political establishment has not rushed to embrace Obama, with many black leaders either backing rival Hillary Clinton or keeping their options open as they express doubts about the possibility of electing a black to the nation's highest office.
Days before Obama's first visit as a presidential candidate in February, state Sen. Robert Ford, a longtime black political figure with a long civil rights record, warned that an African-American at the top might drag down the rest of the Democratic ticket.
While polls early in the year showed Obama trailing Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards in South Carolina, a McClatchy-MSNBC poll released Sunday put him in a statistical tie for the lead with the Clinton. The New York senator had 28 percent and Obama 25 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. A key factor has been a swing to Obama among the state's African-Americans, whom the poll showed support the Illinois senator 37 percent versus 21 percent for Clinton.
On Sunday, Winfrey and Obama delivered messages rich with references to faith, historical moment and the possibilities ahead, in effect urging the crowd to set aside doubts.
"Disappointment doesn't have to be normal anymore," Winfrey said.
Winfrey described her own rise from birth in the segregated South of 1954 in Mississippi.
"Think about where you'd be in your life if you'd waited when people told you to," she said. "I wouldn't be where I am if I'd waited on the people who told me it can't be."
On a Sunday afternoon in which many people from this Bible Belt state came to the rally after church services, Winfrey opened by speaking of the "amazing grace" that brought her to the stage and would permit Obama "to be the next president of the United States."
For the day at least, many in the crowd felt that same confidence, bringing along children and grandchildren to share the moment and cameras to record Obama's visit for posterity.
"It's history in the making," said Laverne Worthy, 35, a training coordinator for an investment bank in Charlotte, N.C.
"He is half-white and half-black, and he is going to be our first African-American president," said Worthy, who was with her 10-year-old son, Justin.
The crowd began lining up for seats before 6 a.m. for a 2:30 p.m. rally, though many said Winfrey was at least as important a draw. Several supporters said Winfrey's endorsement had helped them sort through conflicting opinions about which candidate to back, and others said she had solidified their feelings that Obama was the right choice.
"She has not let anyone down yet. The doubt is gone," said Queenie Glover, 62, a nurse from Aiken, S.C., who said she had been inclined toward Clinton until four days ago when she heard of Winfrey's unhedged endorsement.
The scene later Sunday in Manchester, N.H., was far different. Obama and Winfrey attracted an overwhelming crowd for a presidential campaign event in the state -- at least 6,000 people inside the Verizon Wireless Arena -- but the venue holds more than 11,000. The campaign had distributed about 10,000 tickets in advance.
Curiosity brings them out
For many New Hampshire voters in the predominantly female crowd, it was curiosity that drew them rather than an ardent passion for the Illinois senator or even the queen of daytime television.
Barbara Levesque and Alexis Jackson drove for more than an hour to hear Obama after listening to Clinton on Thursday.
"I guess I'm coming here to see if there is any substance compared to Hillary," said Levesque, an independent voter who works as a forester.
Jackson, a Democrat, said she wanted to see "the circus atmosphere of having Oprah" here.
Geno Dempsey and his son, Jordan, 15, have not seen any other candidate speak this year, but the idea of catching Obama piqued their curiosity.
"We wanted the opportunity to experience this," said Dempsey, an independent voter who has yet to make up his mind.
To these voters, Winfrey and Obama seemed to repeatedly draw critical contrasts with Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
"The amount of time a person spends in Washington means nothing unless that person is accountable for the judgments they made with the time they had," Winfrey said. "It's time for a president who has good judgment. We need Barack Obama."
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