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Obama, Clinton top contenders in racially charged South Carolina primary

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    Democratic presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton collided Saturday in a racially charged South Carolina primary, prelude to the Feb. 5 coast-to-coast competition for more than 1,600 national convention delegates.
    Former Sen. John Edwards was the third contender on the ballot, hoping to benefit from the acrimony between the other two.
    South Carolina offered 45 Democratic National Convention delegates, as well as the campaign’s first indication of Obama’s political appeal in a state with a large black population.
    Clinton hopes to become the first woman to occupy the White House, and Obama is the strongest black contender in history.
    After playing a muted role in the earlier contests, the issue of race dominated an incendiary week that included a shift in strategy for Obama, a remarkably bitter debate, and fresh scrutiny of former President Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign.
    Polls opened at 7 a.m. and election officials reported no problems with voting machines as there were in last week’s GOP primary after one county’s electronic machines failed to function properly.
    ‘‘Everything’s going smoothly,’’ said state Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.
    Clinton and daughter Chelsea greeted voters Saturday morning at a Shoney’s restaurant in Columbia. Clinton hoisted babies and wedged into booths to chat with patrons surprised to have their breakfast interrupted by a presidential candidate and a huge media horde.
    Patron, M.J. Hassell, 66, said she had agonized over whom to support but finally sided with Clinton.
    ‘‘I did like Obama’s stand on being against the war from the start. But Hillary’s got the experience we need,’’ Hassell, who is white, said.
    Clinton and Chelsea later sat down for breakfast with California Rep. Laura Richardson, a black congresswoman who was campaigning in South Carolina for the former first lady.
    Clinton and Obama swapped accusatory radio commercials earlier in the week.
    The former first lady aired an ad saying Obama had once approved of Republican ideas. His camp responded quickly: ‘‘Hillary Clinton will say anything to get elected.’’ First she, then he, pulled the commercials after a couple of days.
    Given the bickering, Edwards looked for an opening to reinvigorate a candidacy all but eclipsed by the historic campaign between Obama and Clinton. He went on the ‘‘Late Show with David Letterman’’ at midweek to say he wanted to represent the ‘‘grown-up wing of the Democratic party.’’
    That was one night after a finger-wagging debate in which Obama told Clinton he was helping unemployed workers on the streets of Chicago when ‘‘you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.’’
    Moments later, the former first lady said she was fighting against misguided Republican policies ‘‘when you were practicing law and representing your contributor ... in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.’’
    Each side accused the other of playing the race card, sparking a controversy that frequently involved the former president.
    ‘‘They are getting votes, to be sure, because of their race or gender. That’s why people tell me Hillary doesn’t have a chance of winning here,’’ he said at one stop, strongly suggesting that blacks would not support a white alternative to Obama.
    Clinton campaign strategists denied any intentional effort to stir the racial debate. But they said they believe the fallout has had the effect of branding Obama as ‘‘the black candidate.’’
    By week’s end, one poll indicated that Obama’s support among whites in the state had dropped sharply, a danger sign for him in the rush of primaries and caucuses that begins on Feb. 5.
    The former president’s efforts drew criticism from Obama’s allies as well as Democrats neutral in the race. ‘‘Not presidential,’’ said Tom Daschle, an Obama supporter who was Senate majority leader at the time of Clinton’s impeachment nearly a decade ago.
    Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy and Seanna Adcox in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.

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