COLUMBIA, S.C.—The Obama press corps on Saturday gravitated towards the Liberty Tap Room & Grill, next door to the hotel where the Obamas’ and top staffers are staying. When I walked in to meet a New York-based colleague for lunch, I saw a few staffers for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and then spotted Clinton herself working the room on election day, with her full press corps in tow.
Clinton schmoozed, asked people to vote if they had not yet, seemed in no hurry and organized photo shoots of herself with folks while the Obama and Clinton journalists mingled. She asked one eater she sensed was too shy to ask, “want a picture?’’ At one table she discussed the relative merits of Maryland crab cakes.
Then Clinton moved to a booth with about seven women (it was a birthday celebration for one of them) and many , I surmise from the conversation, were law students fresh from some oral arguments. “Criminal or civil?” said Clinton, who plopped down to chat and hang out. The women told her about some law school stuff and Clinton said, “I did all that when I was in law school.”
She then got the group squished together in a booth, arms around arms, for pictures. (This will teach me, the one time I did not have my camera battery charged up. Am I kicking myself.) Then she made sure each woman had an individual picture with her.
As she started to move on, she said to the birthday group, “You’ll never forget this one.”
You might ask, as a reporter covering Obama, why wasn’t I out with Obama? Why were the Obama reporters eating (some great barbeque in this state, by the way) when the Clinton scribes were hard at work? That’s because Obama pooled his stops this morning, meaning only a limited number of print and broadcast representatives were allowed to cover and file a report for the gang. (The Boston Globe’s Scott Helman’s detailed pool report is below). It’s taken a lot of kvetching just to get the Obama campaign ministry of information to this stage of organizing a pool so if the Obama media people read this, please note I appreciate progress. I always HOPE for CHANGE.
Obama made stops at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Benedict College, Harpers Restaurant and spent the day during a series of local and national interviews. Race is a factor in the South Carolina primary and Obama told NBC’s Lester Holt that in the first months of the campaign, he was dealing with the question if he was “black enough” as he hopes to come out of the South Carolina on the strength of black and white votes and not be dependent on African-American votes.
“You’ll recall that early in this campaign everybody was asking am I black enough, right? You know, there's a constant narrative that goes back and forth. What our message has been is consistent. I’m not running as a black or a white candidate, or a red state or a blue state candidate. I’m running as a candidate to be president of the United States of America. And that's where I think the vast majority of Americans are looking for," Obama said.
Lester Holt: The polls here taken earlier in the week in south Carolina show Senator Barack Obama with a fairly sizable lead heading into today's democratic primary. But if you watch Thursday night's republican debate in Florida, you might not have guessed it. I discussed that and a number of other hot-button issues with the Illinois Senator during a one-on-one interview. Senator, the republicans went off Hillary Clinton in their debate on Thursday night. I’m wondering if you felt snubbed or felt like maybe they were doing you a favor?
BO: Well, you know, they go back and forth. But I think they like to go after Hillary, partly because they're very comfortable with that fight.
Mitt Romney: She takes her inspiration from the Europe of old, big brother, big government, big taxes.
BO: That's a fight they've been having since the '90s. And part of what our message has been and will continue to be is we've got to get beyond some of those old arguments. I’m confident that I will be able to get independent votes and some republican votes that Senator Clinton could not get partly because of this antipathy that, in fairness to republicans, like to gin up for their own purposes.
Lester Holt: You've tried to have a broad appeal but we saw in the last week your support among white voters in South Carolina has dropped in half. Why is that happening?
BO: Well, I’m not sure that, you know you take one poll, there are other polls that show us getting 19%, 20%, holding pretty steady. But of you also look at this campaign. We’ve won in Iowa. Which is 94% white. We’ve practically tied in New Hampshire. With the same ratios. We’ve won in some of the most diverse states and some least diverse states. And, in Nevada, for example, where I really racked up my big lead was in rural conservative northern Nevada.
Lester Holt: But this is South Carolina. It’s history of racial segregation and we're seeing it here on the heels of Martin Luther King's legacy.
BO: My sense is partly, the media has focused a lot on race. You know, that has been a national obsession of ours for a long time. But I’m absolutely confident that when you look at where we are drawing support from across the country that we're going to do very well. You’ll recall that early in this campaign everybody was asking am I black enough, right? You know, there's a constant narrative that goes back and forth. What our message has been is consistent. I’m not running as a black or a white candidate, or a red state or a blue state candidate. I’m running as a candidate to be president of the United States of America. And that's where I think the vast majority of Americans are looking for.
Lester Holt: Do you regret any of the exchanges with Hillary Clinton, though, on race and anything personal that may have led to a drop in support among white voters?
BO: I didn't have an exchange with Senator Clinton over race.
Lester Holt: [inaudible]
BO: Well, no. actually if you take a look, I did not say at any point that I thought they were talking about race. Take a look. There’s not a single quote in which that's been a suggestion I’ve made. I’ve said that her husband has made all sorts of inaccurate statements about my support of Ronald Reagan, or other things. But, I don't view them as having gone after me on the basis of race. That’s been a lens through which I think the media's focused. But that's not an argument that I’ve made.
Lester Holt: Senator, Senator Clinton got the endorsement of "the New York Times" on Thursday night. They called her more qualified, for qualified right now to be president. Which brings up that experience question, again.
BO: It also brings up the fact that it's her hometown paper.
Lester Holt: It's true, it's a hometown paper. But it brings up the experience and you've heard that time and time again. How do you get past that?
BO: Well, I think that the Clinton campaign is going to continue to talk about it, because that's what Washington does. You know, people who have been in Washington a long time are going to talk about the importance of being in Washington. But the American people are looking for a different standard of leadership. They want to know is this somebody who talks to them in a straightforward, honest fashion about how we're going to solve problems. Is it somebody who is going to change the tone and tenor of partisanship in Washington so that we can actually build a working majority to get things done? Is this somebody who's going to take on the lobbyists and special interests in an aggressive way as I have done passing the toughest ethics reform legislation since Watergate? Those are going to be the measures that I think people use. When we talk about experience a lot of times what I want to focus on is not just the assertion of longevity, but rather who's exercising good judgment to help lead this country in the right direction. So, there's talk about being prepared on day one. What we really need is somebody who's right on day one. Whether it's about the war in Iraq or how we're going to make sure that families are staying in their homes and staying in their jobs and we're rebuilding our economy. And you know, my judgment, I think, stands up to the test during the course of this campaign.
Lester Holt: And while Senator Obama says he is not injected race into the conversation, he did acknowledge that surrogates on both sides may have been stoking those fires in this campaign here.
Kate Now: I had a chance to sit down with the front-runner in South Carolina, Senator Barack Obama yesterday down in South Carolina and discuss his strategy moving forward in what David said is turning out to be a very rough and tumble campaign. Senator, thanks for being with us.
BO: Thank you so much.
Kate Snow: There's a great political cartoon I want to show you. It’s a donkey torn apart with all of you kicking and screaming on the inside. It speaks to the tone, the nastiness. Do you worry that the nasty tone will somehow tarnish you and your message of hope?
BO: There's been a flair-up over the last month. Mainly because I started doing well. When I was 20 points down. I was a wonderful guy, my health care plan was universal. And, you know, as we got more notice and won Iowa, I think the classic Washington response was, let's see if we can muddy the guy up a little bit.
Kate Snow: The AP writer wrote, Ron Fournier wrote, he wrote that you've been marginalized and he wrote, as the black candidate by the Clinton machine.
BO: I think it would be hard to argue I was marginalized when I won Iowa which was 94% white. We were almost tied in New Hampshire, a state that has no white population. In Nevada, I was able to win, actually the biggest votes, margins in those northern areas that are predominantly white rural conservative areas. Now here in South Carolina there's a sizeable African American population, not surprisingly –
Kate Snow: Which you were doing very, very well in.
BO: Not surprisingly we're doing well there. I’m sure they're surprised by my candidacy.
Kate Snow: In South Carolina you are, you’re leading in the polls. The latest poll out today has you ahead and far ahead among African Americans, but only getting 10% of the white vote down from last week.
BO: I think the press has been very focused, almost, you know, maniacally on the issue of race here in South Carolina. But as we move forward after this contest, I’m very confident that we'll continue to build the kinds of coalitions that we've been seeing all across the country.
Kate Snow: I want to ask one thing, because I spent the day with Michelle Obama, your wife the other day, and she said something really interesting.
MO: This is hard. There is another option that is better for us than this.
Kate Snow: She seemed to be saying, we could be -- she said we could be making a lot more money, we could be expensive fancy lawyers in Chicago. We could be comfortable, we could not be taking the time, spending all the time away from our kids.
BO: Missing out on a chunk of your child's growing up is very difficult. But the reason she emphasizes this is because it's worth it. You have to do this because you're passionate about making sure that the ordinary American out there who is trying to raise the family, the single mom who is struggling, that those people are getting some relief. We’ve done it in the past. There’s no reason we can't do it in the future, but we need leadership in Washington.
Kate Snow: Senator Obama, thank you.
BO: Thank you so much.
Kate Snow: So interesting to hear them talk about their family. He hasn't seen his two girls since last Saturday when he flew home just to see them for a night. Yeah, it’s tough.
Anchor: Right. They’re young school age. So he sees them when he can.
Kate Snow: But they think it's worth it.
Pool report from Scott Helman, Boston Globe
Senator Barack Obama spent about a half-hour greeting the lunch and brunch crowd Saturday at Harper's Restaurant just outside downtown Columbia. He greeted nearly every table in the restaurant, as well as the waitstaff and some of the cooks, posing for photographs and exchanging pleasantries with customers.
"I might get to shake hands with the future president!" one woman said excitedly into her cell phone as Obama arrived.
As Obama began to work his way around the room, a man told him, "Enjoy your lunch if you can." Obama then approached a family gathered around a big table and said, "How's it going, everybody?" Then he grabbed a white napkin off their table and wiped his hands, saying, "Let me borrow a napkin. I got a little juice on me."
Beverly Wilburn, a cook at the restaurant, came out of the kitchen to greet him. "You got my vote," she told him. "All right." Asked if she had voted yet, Wilburn said, "As soon as I get off of work."
"How are you, sir?" Obama asked David Condon, a 47-year-old from Columbia who works for the South Carolina Technical College System. Condon snapped a photo of Obama with his arm around Condon's 8-year-old daughter, Grace, and told Obama he liked his policies on creating jobs.
Greeting an older couple at another table, Obama said, "So nice to see you. That's a fine lookin' brunch." They were eating salads; Obama said he liked salads, too. He then asked two women at the next table, "What kind of work do you guys do?" Childs Cantey, a 30-year-old Obama supporter from Columbia wearing an "I voted" sticker, told him she was an environmental attorney. "That's important work," Obama said. He also complained to them about the weather. "You guys didn't tell me it gets this cold in South Carolina," he said. "I should have brought my longjohns."
At that point, Ellis and Alex Caulkins, 12-year-old twins from Florence, S.C., approached Obama with a pointed question. "Hey, Obama, what are you going to do about foreign policy?" Ellis asked, telling Obama that he didn't seem to be making many campaign promises. Obama reiterated his promise to get American troops out of Iraq, then asked the twin boys what their day held. Ellis explained that they were headed to Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia. "That sounds fun," Obama said, before the boys' grandfather pulled them away. "Let's go eat, boys, time to eat," he said. Back at their table, Ellis said he wasn't satisfied with Obama's answer, but admitted he had something of an agenda. "I don't want another Democrat," he said, professing admiration for Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. "We have enough of them."
Obama also greeted Scott Boyd, a 42-year-old neurosurgeon from Columbia, who said he's a lifelong Republican but voted for Obama in Saturday's primary. They talked briefly about the cost of malpractice insurance, and Boyd said afterward he was impressed with Obama's grasp of the issue. Boyd said he has never been this excited about an election. "He's an aggregator," he said. "I think he can bring people together. For me to be brought out of my Republican shell – I'm a convert now."