ORANGEBURG, S.C. – The Democrats' freshest face, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, is on the move here, the state's top Democrat told FOX News, hours before the first big presidential debate of the 2008 White House race.
"Obama has the momentum," said Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, who is the driving force behind Thursday night's debate and revitalization of South Carolina's role in presidential politics.
Clyburn said Obama's fund-raising success in the first quarter of this year added steam to a campaign already moving under the propulsion of grassroots enthusiasm.
Clyburn won't make an endorsement before South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary, scheduled for Jan. 29, 2008. But the eight-term congressman knows the state and says it's a three-candidate race: Obama, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
Asked how far the trio is from the rest of the field, Clyburn estimated, "25 percent."
A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Wednesday shows Clinton's national lead of Obama shrinking with Edwards in a solid third. The poll of 1,004 adults showed Clinton at 36 percent, Obama at 31 percent and Edwards at 20 percent. One month ago the same poll had Obama trailing Clinton by 12 percentage points.
In Orangeburg ahead of the debate, Clinton and Obama loyalists shouted their support for TV cameras and in impromptu rallies. Obama and Clinton placards blanketed areas of dense media concentration and all the main roads leading to the South Carolina State University campus.
Obama supporters also carried around a few hand made signs that said such words of support as "Barack the vote," "Students 4 Obama" and "Barack the debate." No such homegrown signs were visible for Clinton or Edwards.
Clinton strategists say the senator's national numbers matter less than statewide poll data. They point to recent surveys in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida showing Clinton with big double-digit leads over Obama and Edwards.
Bob Nash, Clinton's deputy campaign manager, said the senator's running ahead in South Carolina and called Obama's energetic challenge a plus.
"There are three polls in South Carolina that have her up in South Carolina between five and ten points over Obama," Nash said. "I'm happy Obama's in this race. In the end, all the excitement generated by him is going to accrue to the benefit of the winner of this primary. We think that's going to be Hillary Clinton."
South Carolina's Democratic Party Chairman Joe Erwin said the Iraq war dominates the debate in the state as it does around the country with one key difference: voters here want more than opposition to the status quo.
"I know for a fact, that voters here, that will vote in the Democratic primary ... are going to ask, what is your answer, 'cause if you're just going to criticize the president, that's not good enough," Erwin said.