WASHINGTON -- The question of whether TV megastar Oprah Winfrey can help Sen. Barack Obama win some of the key Democratic presidential primaries was answered last week in South Carolina.
Sen. Hillary Clinton had led in the state for months, with Obama consistently trailing her but closing in. That all changed when Oprah flew in with the freshman senator on Sunday, Dec. 9, drawing a massive crowd of 30,000 cheering supporters at the University of South Carolina's football stadium in Columbia.
Veteran election watchers in the state said they had never seen such a turnout at a political rally in the state, and a post-rally poll showed that the most widely watched television star in America had effectively helped Obama move the numbers in his direction.
An InsiderAdvantage poll of 480 likely Democratic primary voters now puts Obama over Hillary by 28 percent to 22 percent in the state. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards, who had won the primary handily four years ago, was trailing in third place with 14 percent.
The strategic change in the primary's dynamics as a result of Oprah's visit was a surge in support for Obama among the state's large black vote.
"Obama's support among African-Americans rose a bit over the weekend while Clinton's dropped. This follows our (earlier) poll... in which there was a major shift in black voters towards Obama. Edwards lost a small amount as this likely shifted to undecided," said Matt Towery, chief executive of the Atlanta-based polling firm that conducted the survey.
Notably, the survey also showed that Obama's support among white voters did not change after the rally. Thus, Towery concluded, the shift showed that "the Oprah visit ... moved African-American voters."
Veteran political reporter Lee Bandy of The State newspaper in Columbia, and an InsiderAdvantage election analyst, confirmed, "these numbers are correct. There has been a tremendous shift in the black vote since last week, when people realized that Oprah Winfrey was coming to South Carolina. This is the first political event I've ever seen with 30,000 people and tailgaters."
The defining election issue in the Jan. 26 primary has always been who is going to win the black vote. In the beginning, Clinton was getting the largest slice of that pie because many blacks doubted that her chief rival had a chance of winning a general action. But Obama's sudden move to the head of the pack in Iowa and into contention in New Hampshire has begun to dispel those doubts.
Black voters make up about 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote in the state, and as Towery told me, "Obama is now leading substantially among blacks. Clinton's drawing them in the 20 percent range and Obama is close to the 50 percent range."
"It doesn't mean that Obama has South Carolina wrapped up. It does mean that the white candidates are splitting the white vote," he asserted.
But something greater than Oprah's gargantuan popularity may be at work here. As Obama's numbers have risen in the early state contests that will kick off the 2008 primary season, Clinton operatives have escalated their attacks, making their candidate appear mean-minded and vindictive in the process.
First they mocked his political ambition, pointing to an essay he wrote in elementary school about his plans to be president. Then they attacked him for keeping a "slush fund" that turned out to be a perfectly legal political action committee (PAC) to raise money to give to other candidates, including a contribution to Hillary's Senate campaign.
Last week, things got even nastier. Bill Shaheen, the Clinton co-chairman in New Hampshire, raised Obama's admission that he had tried drugs as a youngster, declaring that this would open him up to GOP-led questions in the general election, such as, "When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?"
The attacks suggested a rising desperation among Hillary's high command as they saw her polling numbers erode and Obama's continuing to rise.
Shaheen tried to back away from his remarks last week, saying that he "deeply regretted" his comments, but such vituperrious remarks have left a bad taste in voters' mouths toward the Clinton camp.
The Obama campaign shot back with deadly accuracy: "Hillary Clinton said attacking other Democrats is the 'fun part' of this campaign, and now she's moved from Barack Obama's kindergarten years to his teenage years in an increasingly desperate effort to slow her slide in the polls," campaign manager David Plouffe said in a statement.
"Senator Clinton's campaign is recycling old news that Barack Obama has been candid about in a book he wrote years ago, and he's talked about the lessons he's learned from these mistakes with young people all across the country. He plans on winning this campaign by focusing on the issues that actually matter to the American people."
Score another round for Obama.