'New York Times' backs Clinton for key Carolina vote

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Barack Obama enjoyed a comfortable lead in the polls as South Carolina Democrats prepared to vote today, but his opportunity to savour victory may prove shortlived as his main rival Hillary Clinton gains momentum.

Yesterday the influential New York Times came out with an endorsement of Mrs Clinton after a long and fractious internal debate at the newspaper.

Mr Obama was ahead in the polls in South Carolina with 38 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for Mrs Clinton and 19 per cent for Mr Edwards. But nationwide a Los Angeles Times poll puts Mrs Clinton far ahead of her rivals with 42 per cent and Mr Obama in second place with 33 per cent.

The overwhelmingly black electorate in today's Democratic primary has an anguished choice to make.

South Carolina's once segregated universities only opened their doors to black students in 1963. Benedict College, in the capital, Columbia, is an overwhelmingly black university steeped in the state's troubled racial history. It should be fertile Obama country. But the college is putting its head before its heart, advising professors and students alike to back Mrs Clinton in today's vote.

Dean Stacy Jones put her finger on the dilemma of many voters. She announced that while she herself was "for Hillary" the same was not true for many others and she acknowledged that "for some it may take a very, very full step when they get in the polling booth".

Even as Mrs Clinton arrived on campus for a pre-election prayer meet and peptalk, the enthusiasm was muted. The draw of the leading Democratic candidate was not enough to fill its tiny chapel.

No less an authority than Bill Clinton says that he expects Barack Obama to win today's South Carolina primary but there is a growing consensus that Mrs Clinton will ultimately win the nomination.

She arrived yesterday with heavyweight reinforcements, two black politicians from New York: Charlie Rangel, a powerful congressman, and David Dinkins, an ineffectual former mayor of New York. She also had her chief local organiser, Darrel Jackson, who is both a state senator and a minister.

"I don't know what to call him," Mrs Clinton joked, "during the week he's senator and on Sunday he's pastor."

Their job was to allay any doubts in voters' minds about picking a white candidate over such a charismatic black contender.

Mrs Clinton's long history of support for the civil rights movement and black issues is well known. Yesterday, she excoriated a school system that has left many black pupils with shameful levels of education.

She spoke of visiting a school in the so-called "corridor of shame" with water coming through the roof and woeful levels of education. She vowed to tear up George Bush's "no child left behind" programme and increase teachers' pay.

Several of those in the audience said they had still not decided how to vote. Betty Stukes, an education professor who is black, admitted to being "pretty much offended" by the racial slurs flying around during the campaign. But she was open to persuasion by Mrs Clinton. "We have to think about Washington DC and the best person to bring about change" she said, "it cannot be business as usual."

In the front row, Julius Steed, a retired school teacher, enthused that he was "all for Hillary". "I love what she stands for. What's important is that she's electable," he said.