New Machine -- In South, Democrats' Tactics May Change Political Game
In early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, campaigns use rallies and personal appearances to get votes. Now, the nominating races have moved to bigger states, including much of the South. Candidates here rely on endorsements from powerful politicians and preachers. It is a tradition that has evolved since the 1960s to garner support among poor blacks who look to their preachers for both spiritual and political guidance. And it is the way Mrs. Clinton, like countless Democratic politicians before her, is running her campaign in South Carolina.
Mr. Obama, in contrast, is trying something many observers say has never been done here: He is circumventing entrenched local leadership and building a political machine from scratch. His staff consists largely of community organizers -- many from out of state or with no political experience -- who are assembling an army of volunteers. It is a strategy often used by labor organizations and in neighborhood and town politics.
The strategy has risks. The endorsement system of politics evolved precisely because it was locals, not outsiders, who knew where voters here lived and how to get them to the polls.
The campaigns' differing strategies have opened a split between the old hands at Southern black politics who back Mrs. Clinton, and a new generation of Obama supporters who are often more attuned to hip-hop culture than civil-rights history.
When Mr. Obama first started trying to organize the state [of South Carolina] earlier this year, he began in the usual way, seeking endorsements of traditional power brokers. The campaign offered a $5,000-a-month consulting contract to state Sen. Darrell Jackson of Columbia, a longtime legislator and pastor of an 11,000-member church, who also runs an ad agency.
Mr. Jackson's ability to turn out the vote -- or suppress it against rivals -- is the stuff of local legend. In 2004, he helped clinch a primary win for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, even as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was coming off wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. At the time, Mr. Edwards was paying him consulting fees of roughly $15,000 a month, according to federal records.
Mr. Jackson says he seriously considered the offer from Mr. Obama, but instead became a paid consultant to Mrs. Clinton, essentially running her state operation for substantially more than what the Obama camp offered. "A lot of our hearts were torn -- it wasn't an easy choice," Mr. Jackson said. He drew more than $135,000 from the Clinton campaign from February 2007 through September 2007, the latest figures available, according to federal election filings, and remains on the payroll.
Mr. Obama's team says his grass-roots approach -- tapping younger African-American voters who have never been engaged in elections -- has the potential to permanently change the way politics are practiced here.
Steve Hildebrand, Mr. Obama's chief strategist for early voting states, set out to build an organization that relies heavily on circumventing the established black political gentry in South Carolina. A native of South Dakota, Mr. Hildebrand is not only an outsider, he is also white -- an unusual combination for someone setting out to win the black vote here. Many of the people he has hired have come from out of state or have no presidential-campaign experience, or both.
He says he has largely eschewed the local tradition of giving "walking-around money," or "street money," to political figures who back candidates. Such funds are used to hire van drivers, canvassers and poll watchers who turn out the black vote on election day. It's a practice as old as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.