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Gary Younge
Democrats walk the tightrope of race

"I've gotten to know Jim over the last couple of years," said Mr Kerry, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I learned how to talk over the loud noise in the garage at a fish fry. And to dance a bit late at night, and have some mighty good fish."

Mr Clyburn interjected with a playful putdown: "I wouldn't call that dancing."

Like half of a double act Mr Kerry waited for the laughter to subside and responded: "I thought for a white guy I showed some rhythm."

Welcome to electioneering southern style, where talk of what unites most southerners - food, religion, geography - is evoked to mask the issue that divides them: race.

And in few places is this more true than in South Carolina, the first state to leave the union and spark the civil war in the 19th century, and the last to keep the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of its capitol building, in Columbia.

In a primary where half the electorate is black a candidate cannot avoid the issue. In a state where Republicans use racism as a wedge to appeal to poor whites, it is the last thing Democratic candidates who want to get elected will talk about honestly.

This is their first test to walk that fine, disingenuous line, the first opportunity to talk to African Americans in the south, without whom the Democratic party has only once won the presidency since the second world war.

Tomorrow's vote in South Carolina is one of seven across the country; there are also primaries in Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Delaware and New Mexico and North Dakota will hold caucuses to choose their favoured candidates.

South Carolina may not send the most delegates to the national convention which will ultimately anoint the presidential nominee. But all the candidates acknowledge that the state has huge symbolic importance.

In the past week the candidates have weaved through black churches and white neighbourhoods talking about healing the nation without ever addressing the gaping wound before them.

"They're not going to talk about it unless they absolutely have to," says Kymm Hunter, who works at Benedict College, a historically black college in Columbia.

"Racism's still strong here so they just won't tell it like it is."

Ms Hunter is voting for the Rev Al Sharpton, the only African American in the race who breaks the taboo, sometimes with frustration but more often with humour.

"I'm the son of a man who couldn't be a mill worker because of the colour of his skin," he told John Edwards, the North Carolina senator and Democratic hopeful who makes much of his humble upbringing, at a recent debate.

Two days later he said: "If he thinks it's a long distance from a mill house to the White House he should think about how far it is from the outhouse of the mill house to the White House."

If race divides the voters, economics and electability are the issues motivating them.

Mr Sharpton has coined the best lines of the campaign as he has been working through the churches and black colleges of South Carolina for several months.

But the latest Zogby tracking poll puts him fourth among black voters. The erratic polls - some show Mr Edwards with a runaway lead, others show him tied with Mr Kerry - tell one essential story.

Whatever the differences between the south and the rest of the country and within the south itself, when it comes to this primary race Democrats share one overriding concern: they loathe President George Bush with more intensity than they love any of Democratic candidates.

"I connect with Al Sharpton on an emotional level," said Wayne Smith, a black Vietnam veteran.

"He's an important voice. But at the end of the day he's not going to make it happen. Senator Kerry has reached his stride. He can get rid of George Bush and that's what I want more than anything else."

Mr Edwards has already said he has to win in South Carolina to stay in the race.

But Mr Kerry has to perform well to show that despite his patrician demeanour he can translate beyond white voters and the Mason Dixon line, the frontier between the former free and slave-holding states.

Mr Edwards is doing well among women and white voters. Mr Kerry is performing better among African Americans and men.

His credentials as a Vietnam veteran in a region which has sent more young men and women to Iraq than any other have certainly helped (his campaign ad here has him striding through Vietnam carrying a gun).

"He has the resumé that allows him to have credibility if he were to land on an aircraft carrier," Mr Clyburn said.

The appeal of his war record crosses racial lines, so it could help lever some working class white voters away from the Republicans.

The other issue is jobs, which a poll by the television network CBS puts first among voters' concerns. Last year South Carolina lost more jobs per head of population than anywhere else in the country; it has lost 46,800 manufacturing jobs since Mr Bush took office. Roadside bill boards ask: "Lost your job to free trade and offshoring yet?"

"South Carolina is the poster-child state for being hard hit by foreign trade," said Don Fowler, a resident of Columbia and former chairman of the Democratic national committee. "That is a sleeper issue."

Some areas may now just be waking up. The state has seen an influx of foreign capital, with plants for BMW, Fuji and Michelin in one area and an outpouring of jobs in the textile mills in another.

It was finding unity in economic precariousness that enabled Jesse Jackson to win here in the 80s. "When they close down your factory or foreclose on your farm, and they pull the plug and the lights go out," he said, "we all look amazingly similar sitting there in the dark."

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