COLUMBIA, S.C. — Polls point to a Barack Obama victory in South Carolina's primary Saturday, but the Rev. Larry McCutcheon isn't so sure.
The pastor of Orangeburg's Trinity United Methodist Church finds "most of the people I talk to are trying to choose" between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"Obama brings a freshness," he said, "but people recognize Clinton's experience."
That ambivalence echoed all through the state Friday, as Obama, Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards spent a frenetic day trying to woo votes in a state that could make or break at least one of them.
Illinois Sen. Obama is counting on strong support from black voters, who could account for as much as half of Saturday's ballots, in his bid to win his first contest since the Iowa caucus Jan. 3.
But New York Sen. Clinton is trying hard to cut into the African-American vote. A McClatchy-MSNBC poll released Thursday found Obama ahead of Clinton by 38-30 percent overall and among blacks by 59 to 25 percent. Edwards got 19 percent overall and only 4 percent of blacks.
Clinton, who left South Carolina for two days midweek to campaign elsewhere, returned Thursday and spent the last two days energetically courting blacks; the poll showed that 12 percent of them remained undecided and 48 percent view her favorably.
Clinton's advisers see a chance for a double knockout Saturday. They figure that a victory in South Carolina not only would crush Edwards in his birth state — whose primary he won four years ago — but also would deal a devastating blow to Obama. Polls have made Obama the favorite, so a Clinton victory would be hailed as an upset, much like New Hampshire on Jan. 8, and would raise questions about Obama's viability.
Even a second-place Clinton showing probably wouldn't hurt her much because everyone expects that now, because of polls and because she took the two-day hiatus. That suggested she wasn't running full-tilt here, even though she left husband Bill Clinton behind in the state campaigning like mad. Only a third-place finish would raise questions about her viability.
Edwards, who's been gaining ground on Clinton in some surveys as undecided whites appear to be breaking his way, campaigned by bus Friday from Greenville to Charleston and began running a new ad showing Clinton and Obama attacking each other in Monday's debate.
"This kind of squabbling: How many children is this gonna get health care?" Edwards asks in the ad.
Clinton chatted Friday with Russ Parr on his morning radio show, which has a wide African-American audience, loaded up at the buffet table at Doc's Barbecue in Columbia and spoke to students at Benedict College, a historically black institution, where she appeared with former New York Mayor David Dinkins and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., both African-Americans.
Clinton was introduced by Stacey Franklin Jones, a college dean who described herself as "a woman, an African-American, a size 9 label wide, a chocoholic" and any other label people like.
"For some of us," Jones told the audience of 500, "it may take a very, very bold step to walk into that voting booth and focus on our community's future rather than acting on pure emotion."
Then came Clinton, promising that, as president, "I want to double the amount that goes to historically black colleges and universities."
She spent most of her 30-minute talk explaining her views on the slumping economy and the high cost of health care, topics most on the minds of voters, the McClatchy-MSNBC poll found.
People listened intently — there were few interruptions for applause — and many said afterward that they still hadn't decided between Obama and Clinton.
"They both have good plans," said Amber Samuel, a Benedict student.
Obama also visited a college, holding a short roundtable discussion with three women at the University of South Carolina.
They included Hope Griffin, 17, who attended with her grandmother, Dallas Gabee. Griffin, who can vote next November, praised Obama for a campaign that's been "positive all along. Students I know are on Obama's side. Hillary's name hardly comes up and John Edwards hardly comes up."
Gabee was also enthusiastic.
"I'm very happy I'm available to vote for a black candidate," she said, "but I'm not voting for him because he's black. He's the best candidate."
Even more pleased was Patricia Moseley, of Edgewood, a Republican who voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
"I like Senator Obama's vision," she said. "You get the feeling history is going to be made in South Carolina. I think tomorrow will send a message to the nation we can come together as one people."
That feeling is shared widely in the state, making Clinton's task difficult. It's as though she's running against not just Obama but also a movement and a symbol.
"There's nothing wrong with Clinton; I just like Obama and I like what he stands for," explained Glenn Zeigler, a Benedict student.
"Nothing against Clinton; Obama just has more of a feel for people," added Charlene Thompson, a Columbia purchasing agent.
McCutcheon, who's neutral in the race, thinks that people have fond memories of Bill Clinton and they like his wife's background, but they also feel pride about Obama.
As a result, he said, "I just think a lot of people are undecided."
(Rob Christensen of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed to this article.)