CHARLESTON, S.C. - In beauty shops, churches and living rooms, organizers for Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are in a fierce competition for the support of black voters in the upcoming first-in-the-South presidential primary.

Obama's campaign is counting on blacks who traditionally make up half of the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina to deliver the state to him on Jan. 26, a victory that he hopes will help fuel momentum going into the "Mega Tuesday" voting in 22 states 10 days later. But he'll have to fend off Clinton, who comes with one of the most beloved political surnames in the black community.

The outreach is especially targeted at black women, who are reliable voters and who both campaigns recognize may feel loyalties to each candidate. And so far women have made the difference in the campaign - Obama won a majority of women in Iowa and took the state, while Clinton took most women and most votes overall in New Hampshire.

Juanita Edwards is one such voter. She came to see both candidates when they campaigned near her hometown of Simpsonville and still feels torn about which to vote for. Edwards said she's leaning toward Clinton because she likes that she had exposure to international affairs and health care during her time as first lady. But race and gender are on her mind too.

"I definitely respect the opportunity to vote for the first woman president and the first African-American president," she said. "If I have to lean toward one, I always lean toward a strong, intelligent woman."

In the early days of the primary race last year, Clinton had the advantage in polls here and she's won over many influential black leaders. But Obama has been able to turn that around, partly by establishing his credentials with the Iowa victory.

"What's important to a lot of African-Americans in general and certainly in South Carolina is that he's not a symbolic candidate," said David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "He's in it to win."

Obama has courted South Carolina voters through a labour-intensive effort aimed at black communities. He has a large campaign staff that tries to win over preachers and barbers who hold sway in the community, and those organizers also hold meetings with small groups of people - mostly women - in their homes.

The message has a different focus than it did in Iowa and New Hampshire, where almost all voters are white. It stresses Obama's civil rights work, his faith and the struggles he faced growing up, only to end up in Ivy League schools.

"Dream of a president who was raised like Barack was by a single mom who had to work and go to school and raise her kids and accept food stamps once in a while," the candidate's wife, Michelle Obama, said on a visit to the state in November. "Imagine a president who knows what that's like."

It's a story that Deborah Williams says she shares with the two sons that she's raised on her own.

"He's an example of somebody who was raised by a single parent and came out on top and still cares for somebody else," she said. "That's what I always tell my sons; you have to care for others and you have to get your education."

Williams, who came to the University of Charleston on Thursday to see Obama speak, said she will vote for him in the primary, even though at first she was backing Clinton.

"Initially I was supporting her because I must say I'm a Bill Clinton fan," said Williams, an elementary school teacher's assistant. "But then Barack came along and had all the things to say about change."

John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, endorsed Obama here on Thursday to send a message to South Carolina voters that Obama is not simply a candidate for blacks, but one who crosses the racial divide. It also could tell black voters who haven't been reassured by Obama's win in Iowa that he's a candidate who can be embraced by white America.

The Clintons have yet to announce a visit to South Carolina after her win in New Hampshire, and Obama advisers say they wonder whether she's going to campaign in the state. There's a theory that she could skip it, then argue that he was able to win because it was a predominantly black election.

Clinton adviser Minyon Moore said that won't happen. "It's her intention to be in South Carolina and work for every vote there," Moore said. "I can assure you that she's not abandoning South Carolina. There are trips being planned."

Asked how Obama was able to chip away at Clinton's lead among black voters, Moore pointed to a rally last month that drew nearly 30,000 to see the Illinois senator and his most famous friend. "He did have a lovely event with Oprah Winfrey, and we do credit him with that," she said.

Obama advisers say it's unlikely Oprah will make it back to campaign. But spouses of both candidates could help. Bill Clinton would be a powerful draw should the campaign decide to send him. Michelle Obama plans to campaign next week in Georgetown, S.C., her maternal grandfather's hometown.

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