Whom will white male S.C. Democrats vote for?

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2008 

WALHALLA, S.C. — Jimmy DuPre is one of a rare breed: a white male South Carolina Democrat who's been loyal to the party all his life.

When the state's Democrats vote in Saturday's primary, estimates are that only about 17 percent of the voters will be white men, and polls suggest that the candidate who needs them the most — native son John Edwards, himself white — may not get enough to make a strong showing.

The former North Carolina senator was a distant third among all state voters in one new poll released Wednesday, with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama the leader and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton trailing.

Edwards has been behind even among whites, trailing Clinton. DuPre will side with Edwards; like a lot of the white men in this state, he thinks that the Seneca native has an innate understanding of people like him.

But there's no easy way to predict how others like DuPre will vote, said Jack Bass, a professor of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston, because there's no easy way to categorize the white male electorate.

Their decision, he said, could be based partly on economics, and partly on who can win in November. "Edwards' problem is that he's not seen as being that viable," said Joseph Stewart, a professor of political science at Clemson University.

Edwards continued his "Back Home, Back Roads Barnstorm" tour through South Carolina on Wednesday, criticizing Clinton for campaigning in other states.

"I know Senator Clinton was here for the debate on Monday, left right after the debate and has not been back," Edwards told about 300 people at a college campus in Lancaster County.

"If you are not spending time in South Carolina a week before the primary," he said, "what are the chances that you are going to be here after the primary? What are the chances that you will spend time here as president of the United States?"

Obama stumped the state holding a series of rallies, and race came up often.

In Rock Hill, Rita Moore-Johnson, a lab technician, told Obama that while her 77-year-old father thought he could win, "he feels that an African-American candidate won't be able to do what he needs to do in Washington to get change done."

Obama replied: "I am absolutely convinced that the American people right now, they don't care whether you are black, white, brown or green." Moore-Johnson said that while she liked the answer, she wasn't certain that it would sway her father.

Later in the day, Obama spoke to a largely black audience in Sumter and took the unusual step of bringing up Internet rumors that he's a Muslim.

"Don't be confused when you hear some of the negative stuff. They're trying to bamboozle you," Obama said.

"It's the same old okey-doke," he said. "If anybody starts getting some of those e-mails that 'Obama is a Muslim,' I've been a member of the same church for 20 years, praying to Jesus, with my Bible. Don't let people turn you around because they're just making stuff up."

Former President Bill Clinton has spoken to mixed but mostly white crowds while campaigning here this week, including a lot of white men. Hillary Clinton plans to return to the state Thursday and give an economic speech at Furman University.

Bill Clinton stressed the economy Wednesday, telling a Charleston audience, "You've got a candidate here who's got the most experience in managing these complex economic issues," as he touted his wife's plan for dealing with the sub-prime mortgage crisis, including freezing foreclosures for 90 days.

With Obama running strong in the state's black community, Clinton could find the state's white male Democrats a crucial bloc, but as Bass suggested, it's a difficult one to figure out.

South Carolina's white male Democrats include younger voters who grew up after the major civil rights battles were over, small-town folks who still regard the party as more sensitive to their unique economic needs and old-timers such as DuPre who grew up during the New Deal and remain fiercely loyal to the party.

Typical of the younger voter is Ken Campbell, 34, who runs a direct-mail marketing firm in Seneca. Campbell, who's from eastern Canada, came to this country on a baseball scholarship.

He liked Republicans in college — "I was a Clinton-basher," he recalled — but grew tired of the party's constant emphasis on what he called "social baggage." Today, he particularly likes Edwards' message, notably the emphasis on lifting up poor people.

"Manufacturing jobs have dried up. Textiles are gone. That populist message really rings true," Campbell said.

Clinton appears to be attracting many younger voters. Joe Froneberger, 21, of Charleston, said he was a Democrat because of his concerns about gay rights and fiscal responsibility.

"I like Obama," he said, "but he's so much hope and dreams and sugar cookies. It's not enough. Hillary's got the substance and the experience to get things done."

Small-town white male Democrats also are swayed by economics and viability. In Townville, Charles Hamby, 76, is going with Edwards. Hamby has been a railroad contractor, a bluegrass music-show organizer and a user-car dealer. He sees Democrats as more friendly to the small businessman, and Edwards as understanding those needs.

"Democrats just care more about the poor and the old," Hamby said.

But they also care about picking a winner; that's one reason that Ervin Sowell, 64, from Bishopville, came to an Obama rally Wednesday in Sumter.

"I'm not voting for Barack because he's black, but because he's the best man. He did a pretty good job in the debate," Sowell said.

The heart, and probably the bulk, of the white male Democratic vote remains people such as DuPre, 77, with indelible memories of the often-hardscrabble life in the rural South during the Great Depression.

He remembers how the Rural Electrification Administration helped bring electricity to his parents' dirt farm, and how he could buy a $12,500 home in 1955 because of the Farmers Home Administration.

He went on to become a school superintendent, and see children come to class needing breakfast, or dental work, or help with reading.

Democrats always looked for ways to help, DuPre said, and Edwards is part of that tradition. So he'll stick with the party, and with the son of the South.

"I don't think people like Bill Gates need a lot of help," DuPre said, "but Republicans don't look at things that way."

(William Douglas and The (Raleigh) News & Observer's Rob Christensen contributed to this article.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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