WASHINGTON — Prominent African-American supporters of John Edwards accused Barack Obama on Friday of performing a "publicity stunt" by bringing Oprah Winfrey to South Carolina and other early presidential primary states, saying that blacks won't vote for Obama just because of his race.
Winfrey, the billionaire TV star, was scheduled to campaign with Obama in Iowa on Saturday, South Carolina on Sunday and New Hampshire on Sunday night.
"John Edwards has committed himself to making rural communities' infrastructure a priority rather than have a celebrity come in," said South Carolina state Rep. Leon Howard. "It's insulting for anyone to think that African-Americans are automatically onboard with Barack Obama."
Candice Tolliver, a spokeswoman for Obama, said the Illinois senator welcomes Winfrey's high-voltage support.
"Oprah has universal appeal," Tolliver said. "She's earned a tremendous amount of respect not only here in the United States, but around the globe. It's fantastic that she has endorsed Senator Obama for president."
Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend Obama's rally with Winfrey in Columbia, S.C. Demand was so high that the Obama campaign changed the venue from an 18,000-seat indoor arena to an 80,000-seat football stadium.
Connie Johnson, a black legislator from Missouri, said Edwards is the only White House candidate talking about poverty, health care disparities and other issues of concern to African-Americans.
Competition for black supporters is especially keen in South Carolina, where African-Americans are projected to make up almost half the voters in the Jan. 26 Democratic primary.
Edwards, the former U.S. senator from North Carolina, was born in Seneca, S.C., and won the state's 2004 Democratic presidential primary on his way to becoming Sen. John Kerry's running mate.
Edwards, though, is having trouble catching fire in South Carolina this time. While the contest for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus voters is a virtual dead heat among the top three Democratic candidates, Edwards trails New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Obama by significant margins in South Carolina, according to a Rasmussen poll released Thursday.
Clinton leads in South Carolina with 36 percent support among likely voters, the poll showed. Obama had 34 percent and Edwards claimed 13 percent.
Black legislators in South Carolina said Friday that Edwards would emerge victorious.
"We feel that when the dust settles, people are going to come to Edwards because they believe that he can win," said state Rep. William Clyburn.
Linda Dorgan, an African-American member of the Spartanburg City Council, dismissed Winfrey's appearances for Obama with pointed criticism.
"Don't come to me with someone who has more money than anybody," Dorgan said. "We (Edwards supporters) don't need to do publicity stunts."
Referring to Winfrey's extensive charity work in Africa, Dorgan added: "If you build a school in Africa, come and build one in South Carolina."
Edwards has struggled to match the high-profile endorsements of Clinton and Obama by black politicians, entertainers and other celebrities.
President Clinton, still hugely popular with African-Americans, addressed 2,600 cheering delegates in May on behalf of his wife at the annual gala of the NAACP in South Carolina.
Retired NBA legend Magic Johnson, musician Quincy Jones and Bob Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Network, are among the prominent blacks backing Hillary Clinton for president.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, actors Sidney Poitier and Will Smith, and musician Stevie Wonder have joined Winfrey and other influential African-Americans in supporting Obama.
Clinton and Obama each have a dozen or more backers in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American lawmaker in the U.S. House, has declined to endorse any White House candidate from his party.