WASHINGTON – White House hopeful Barack Obama, taking a fellow black lawmaker to task, said Saturday voters are ready to elect a black president.
"At every turn in our history, there's been somebody who said we can't," the Democratic senator from Illinois told a nearly all-black audience of about 2,000 at Claflin University.
"Some people said we can't do this, we can't do that, so we shouldn't even try. If I have your support, if I have your energy and involvement and commitment and ideas, then I'm here to tell you, 'Yes we can."'
The comments drew the loudest ovation during a question-and-answer session in his first campaign swing through South Carolina, an early voting state.
The first-in-the-South contest here is seen as a test of candidates' abilities to reach black voters. Half of the state's Democratic primary voters are black.
Obama responded to comments this past week by Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, who helped mobilize black voters for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in 2004, but has switched to Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential race.
Ford said Tuesday that Obama, a first-term senator, has much to prove. "The media made this guy bigger than life," Ford said. "This guy isn't tested and they made him a rock star."
Ford said one reason he was supporting Clinton, the New York senator, is that he is skeptical Obama can win the presidency and worries his nomination could hurt other Democratic candidates.
"Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose — because he's black and he's top of the ticket. We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything," Ford said.
Ford drew widespread criticism for his comment and later apologized.
U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., introduced Obama, saying "Run, Barack, run."
"Obama is able to run today because Rosa Parks sat down," Clyburn said. "He is able to run today because Septima Clark stood up."
Parks, in 1955, refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., sparking a mass boycott by thousands, mainly black women domestic workers who had long filled the buses' back seats.
Clark was an educator and activist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People decades before the nation's attention turned to racial equality.
Clyburn says he is not endorsing a primary candidate.
State Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin tells candidates the race is open and the black vote is not monolithic.
Darcel Lancaster, an 18-year-old Claflin freshman, spent nearly two hours waiting in the morning's chill to be the first in line to see Obama. The biology major said she wouldn't commit to Obama's campaign.
"I'm going to look more into others," she said.
She doesn't expect him to win every black vote — including hers.
"Some people think he's not black enough," Lancaster said. If she picked Obama, it wouldn't be because of his race, she said. "He's not full black," Lancaster said.
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut spoke earlier Saturday at a Richland County Democratic Party breakfast to a crowd of less than 100.
Both Dodd and Obama had to shorten their South Carolina visits to get back to Washington for a Senate vote on a resolution opposing the Iraq war.