CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- In a fast-moving presidential contest with little breathing room, Democratic candidates are courting their base hard.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn says there's a three way race between Clinton, Obama and Edwards for black South Carolina voters.
Nowhere is that more evident than South Carolina, where African-American voters are relishing the attention and their array of choices.
"There's a three-way struggle" in the African-American community, said Democratic U.S. Congressman and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn whose district encompasses part of Charleston, South Carolina. "Hillary [Clinton] has the opportunity to be the first woman president and that plays well with black women. [Barack] Obama, an opportunity to be the first African-American president and that plays well with black people, male and female. You got [John] Edwards, born in the state and carried the state last time and there are people who feel that he has legitimacy in that state and being a homeboy means a lot to people black and white."
Clyburn says African-Americans could comprise more than 50 percent of voters in January's primary. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll of South Carolina Democratic voters showed Clinton with a 14-point lead over Obama, with Edwards in third place. Among African-Americans, Clinton led Obama by 16 points and was considered to have better experience and a better chance of beating the Republican presidential nominee.
"Clinton, the name is magical in a lot of black communities," Clyburn said. "I mean people really feel that Bill Clinton by and large did right by black voters and he gave them a measure of respectability in the political process and some of those residual emotions are still there."
Senator Clinton opened her state headquarters in Columbia, South Carolina, last month and a state aide says the campaign is heavily engaged in grassroots voter-to-voter contact.
Edwards, who represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate, carried his birth state during the 2004 primaries. The CNN poll showed him in single digits among African-Americans, a result his campaign disputed. They point to prominent African-American supporters and more than $228,000 raised in the Palmetto State since January (more than any other Democratic candidate so far) as evidence of Edwards' strength here.
"I'm impressed with the position he's taken on poverty and health care," said Leon Howard, a state representative and chairman of the South Carolina legislative black caucus. "He is physically visiting rural communities where the African-American population is significant. His outreach has been John Edwards himself."
Howard said Clinton nostalgia alone won't push African-Americans in South Carolina to vote for the New York senator saying he "gives the community more credit than that." He acknowledged the conundrum over whether or not to support Obama.
"I've thought about this, I respect Barack Obama," he said. But "this is too important for symbolism. We can't bank on symbolism, our country is in a state that we really need serious help and we need the person that can do the job"
When Obama lands in Charleston on Monday for the CNN/You Tube/Google debate, it will mark his fifth trip to the state since formally announcing his campaign in February. A spokesman says more than 20 paid staffers are on the ground in South Carolina and more than 1,000 donors statewide contributed $200,000 in the second quarter alone.
The Illinois senator has and will continue to call in to urban radio shows around the state and a heavy emphasis is being placed on reaching voters through the faith community.
"The more people get to know him and hear his message, they support him," said Rick Wade, a senior advisor to the Obama campaign. "He's addressing the issues that matter most to the African-American community, not only the war in Iraq, but health care and education where we're still fighting battles for equity in funding."
Obama, Clinton, and Edwards will all return to South Carolina later in the week for the College Democrats National Convention.
The road to the White House literally runs through Mac's on Main, a soul food restaurant in downtown Columbia renowned for its peach cobbler. Owner and local politico Barry Walker created a "road" out of masking tape back in 2004 and invited all the Democrats and Republicans to eat at his restaurant and put their bumper stickers on his makeshift campaign trail. He has reprised the political gimmick for 2008.
"We've had three Democrats come through ... and I invited several Republicans but none of them have come by yet," he said over the din of his lunchtime crowd. Patrons have to walk over an Obama and Dodd sticker on the way to the buffet and a photo of Dodd leaving his mark hangs above the cash register along with pictures of Obama and Sen. Joe Biden (foot traffic rubbed Biden's sticker off the floor, but he's been there).
"The African-American vote in South Carolina is so important and so powerful," Walker said. He is running for mayor of Irmo, South Carolina, a town about 10 miles away, and is undecided about who will get his vote in January's primary.
"You know Bill Clinton was one of my greatest presidents, I love him, I supported him. Hillary Clinton, I'm supporting her, too, but I'm not really sure that I want to go with another Clinton in the White House right now," Walker said. "Barack Obama to me is a bright star."
Walker's household embodies the "struggle" that Clyburn talked about.
"My son is 18 years old, he's an Obama supporter. He believes that this guy looks like him, is young like him and represents what he believes in," Walker said. "I have another 18 year old that's totally different. She's behind Hillary because she's a woman and she says this is what we want in America."
"It's a great choice to have," he added. E-mail to a friend