Democrats take their roadshow down South in first test of how black voters view the candidates

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The Independent US

The battle for South Carolina has become a contest between the North and the South, between an established, grey-haired Yankee and a more youthful, energetic rival. At the moment the youthful Southerner is ahead by a whisker.

Just three days before the crucial Democratic primary on Tuesday, polls suggest the race for the party's White House nomination is a two-way fight between John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, and John Edwards, the senator from neighbouring North Carolina but who was born here. One poll released yesterday put Mr Edwards on 25 points, one ahead of Mr Kerry - a statistical tie - with Howard Dean trailing a distant third.

For Mr Edwards the contest could not be more important. Having made his pitch to challenge George Bush on being able to deliver the South, he has to win convincingly here if his campaign is to have any hope of overcoming the Kerry rollercoaster.

In recent days, Mr Edwards, whose vitality suggests a man much younger than 50, has been playing on his Southern background, telling people in his easy, Southern accent how he understands the issues that affect them, particularly the loss of jobs. "I grew up where you grew up, I came from the same place," he said yesterday at a public forum in Columbia. "I will never forget where I came from when I am president and you can take that to the bank."

South Carolina is not the prize it once was. Since the withdrawal from the race of Dick Gephardt, his home state of Missouri - which carries more delegates than any of the seven states holding primaries on Tuesday - has become an increasing focus of the candidates' campaigns.

But South Carolina is the first test of how a candidate will fare with black voters. In South Carolina about 30 per cent of the population is black and up to half of those voting on Tuesday are likely to be African-American.

Jim Clyburn, the state's black congressman, who has endorsed Mr Kerry, said: "It's the first time these candidates will get a chance to campaign as they will have to in the general election. Candidates who do well among African-American voters here will go out of here with more credibility."

Aware of this, candidates have made an effort to court the black vote, speaking in churches and black schools. Joe Lieberman, currently polling five points, has been placing adverts on Gospel music radio stations while the Kerry campaign has emphasised the senator's voting record on issues such as support for minorities. But the black vote, of course, is not uniform, as a straw poll of black Democrats near the State Capitol building appeared to confirm.

Ossie Hutto, 55, a quality control worker, said: "I like Kerry - I like the way he speaks. I like Lieberman too but I don't think he has a chance. And I like Edwards. I like what he says about equality."

William Elms, 34, who has four children, said he was likely to back Mr Edwards. He said: "Edwards is a good guy. He knows what needs to be done. He knows we need to put jobs back in the state. I think we have lost 80,000 jobs here under George Bush."

What all seemed in agreement about was that the public "was not ready" for the Rev Al Sharpton, the only remaining black candidate, currently on five points with Mr Lieberman. Mr Elms said: "He has good opinions, but I don't think Washington is ready for him."

If one theme has emerged in these primaries it is one of "electability". Voters may like a candidate and may find their views more in line with their own, but ultimately find themselves leaning towards the person they think has the best chance of beating Mr Bush. Increasingly that candidate appears to be Mr Kerry. If Mr Edwards has a chance of winning, it is by playing to his strengths. On the stump, he is probably the most gifted performer and his campaign pitch of "Two Americas" plays well in a state that remains riven by racial prejudice and economic disparity and which has not been carried by a Democrat in a presidential contest since Jimmy Carter won in 1976. For all the talk of the "New South", for all the upmarket bars in Columbia's Vista district with their scrubbed pine tables and cranberry martinis and the business corridor along Interstate 85 where companies such as BMW and Hitachi have plants, there is still plenty of the "old South" in South Carolina. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said recently: "The other South Carolina [is] unable to escape a centuries-old plantation mentality and a cycle of poverty that to many seems eternal. This South Carolina is overwhelmingly black, with high unemployment rate and low school tests."

Just a few hundreds yards from the trendy bars, a Confederate flag - to many blacks a representation of racism and division since it was seized as a symbol by the Ku Klux Klan - flies from grounds of Capitol.

On the other side of the building that houses the state government stands a statue of the late South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who once ran for president on a ticket that advocated segregation. The statue bears the words: "A century of service."

Whichever candidate succeeds here will have to persuade people he has what it takes to win not just in South Carolina but across America. He will have to appeal to both old and new, black and white, North and South. It is asking a lot of anyone.