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Obama supporters pressed officials to keep Colbert off ballot

  • Story Highlights
  • Executive council member said he felt pressured to keep Colbert off ballot
  • Two Obama endorsers made phone calls to executive council about Colbert
  • Obama campaign denied any connection to the phone calls
  • Colbert issued a statement declaring that his campaign is officially over
  • Next Article in Politics »
By Peter Hamby
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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Two prominent supporters of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign in South Carolina called state Democratic Party officials and urged them to keep funnyman Stephen Colbert's name off the primary ballot, according to party officials and Obama supporters.

The Obama campaign denied any connection to the phone calls.

"Democrats in South Carolina, including supporters of ours, had strong feelings on both sides of the ballot issue, and ultimately it was South Carolina Democrats who made this decision," said Obama's South Carolina communications director Kevin Griffis.

The South Carolina Democratic Party Executive Council voted last week 13-3 to block Colbert's bid for the Democratic primary.

To get on the ballot, a candidate had to demonstrate two requirements: that he or she was viable nationally and had spent time campaigning in the state.

The majority of voters said Colbert, host of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," did not meet the standard of national viability.

At least one member of the executive council, who requested anonymity, told CNN he felt "pressured" by former State Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum to oppose placing Colbert on the ballot.

Tenenbaum, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, is a high-profile supporter of Obama. Her endorsement of Obama in April was touted by the campaign, and she has appeared at several Obama campaign events, including the opening of a campaign headquarters this summer.

"She said it wouldn't be fair to the other candidates. That he [Colbert] wouldn't be sincere. That he was only running in one state," said the executive council official.Video Watch CNN's Peter Hamby's explain why Obama's supporters wanted Colbert off the ballot »

The official added: "The Obama people, they just didn't want him at all."

Tenenbaum disagreed with characterization that she lobbied to keep Colbert off the ballot for political reasons.

"I think lobbying was too strong a word," she said in an interview with CNN.

"I called them to see what they were thinking and if they had made up their mind. I am a volunteer in that campaign, and so I am not a staffer. And I thought it could have taken votes away from a lot of people."

Another Obama endorser who regularly appears at campaign events, state Rep. Bakari Sellers, also made phone calls to members of the party's executive council about Colbert, according to Sellers.

"I placed the calls as a concerned Democrat, realizing that we are a country in despair," Sellers told CNN. "It is not a time for games or to make a mockery of the process."

Given the lopsided vote of the executive council, it was unclear if the calls had significant bearing on Colbert's fate as a bona fide presidential candidate.

But the calls raise questions about the Obama supporters' motives, given their close ties to the campaign and the fact that Colbert and Obama both draw support from a similar demographic.

"A lot of Obama's support is among younger, college-educated folks, and a lot of Colbert's watchers are younger, college-educated folks," said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

"I understand that Obama might potentially lose some voters," said Huffmon, who also noted that having Colbert on the ballot would likely bring in new primary voters rather than take them from other candidates. "But in a race where every vote counts it's a valid concern."


Tenenbaum said her quarrel with having Colbert's name on the ballot was pragmatic rather than political. In deciding which candidates to allow in the primary, the state Democratic Party also had to consider that for every name on the ballot, they would have to pay $20,000 to the state election commission.

"The whole thing is just the money," said Tenenbaum, who said she is fundraising for the party. "He did not meet the criteria. ... It's all in fun and let's just leave it at that."

The three members of the executive council who voted in favor of putting Colbert on the ballot were Charles Hamby, former chairman of the Oconee County Democratic Party; state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg; and Lumus Byrd.

The Columbia-based lawyer who represented Colbert in his bid to be placed on the ballot, Dwight Drake, is a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton, although Drake has told CNN in the past he was initially contacted by Colbert's surrogates to assist in the comedian's bid.

As for Colbert, he issued a statement late Monday declaring that his campaign is officially over.


"I am shocked and saddened by the South Carolina Democratic Executive Council's 13-to-3 vote to keep me off their presidential primary ballot," Colbert said. "Although I lost by the slimmest margin in presidential election history (only 10 votes) I have chosen not to put the country through another agonizing Supreme Court battle. It is time for this nation to heal.

"I want say to my supporters, this is not over. While I may accept the decision of the Council, the fight goes on! The dream endures! And I am going off the air until I can talk about this without weeping." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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