MEMPHIS, Tennessee (Reuters) - Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton jockeyed for position on Sunday in a bruising U.S. presidential race after Obama scored a landslide win in a South Carolina primary tinged with the issue of race.
“I think (the result) speaks extraordinarily well, not just for folks in the South, but all across the country,” said Obama, who beat Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin in Saturday’s Democratic selection contest in South Carolina.
“People want change. I think they want to get beyond some of the racial politics that, you know, has been so dominant in the past,” Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, told ABC’s “This Week.”
Obama’s victory, after losses to Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada, gave him momentum heading into February 5 “Super Tuesday” Democratic contests in 22 states for their party’s presidential nomination. Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, won the first contest in Iowa earlier this month.
Clinton, a second-term senator from New York and wife of former President Bill Clinton, would be the first woman president.
Clinton and her husband drew criticism for comments seen by some as minimizing the role of blacks in the 1960s civil rights movement and the importance of Obama’s success in South Carolina, a state with a large black population.
The Clintons have long enjoyed support in the black community, and she predicted Democrats would unite around whoever wins their party’s nomination for the November 4 general election against the yet-to-be chosen Republican nominee.
Republican President George W. Bush’s second term ends next January.
Clinton left before the votes in South Carolina were even tallied to fly to Tennessee, a February 5 state.
“This has been the most intense election process I know of,” she told reporters. “It is a marathon run like a sprint. There is no stopping. There is no resting.”
The Republican presidential contenders, who held their primary in South Carolina last week, are focused on Florida’s primary on Tuesday where a struggling former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is banking on a strong showing.
“We’re going to win Florida,” Giuliani told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
He rejected polls that show him running fourth in Florida behind Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
McCain and Romney are in a tight race in the state after splitting the last three contests — McCain won South Carolina and Romney won Michigan and Nevada. A new Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll showed the two deadlocked at 30 percent each in Florida.
On Sunday, McCain picked up the endorsement of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist during a campaign stop in Tampa where he was praised as being “tenacious,” “unyielding” and “persistent.”
Earlier in the day, McCain brushed off criticism that he was too much of a maverick to unite Republicans and win the presidency.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McCain said, “I’m very proud, by the way, that polls show that I’m the most competitive by far against Senator Clinton and Senator Obama while the others (Republican candidates) lag far behind.”
Obama got a lift when Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late President John F. Kennedy, endorsed him. She wrote in The New York Times on Sunday that Obama seems to be able to inspire people as her father did a half century ago.
Asked about reports that the late president’s youngest brother, Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was on the verge of endorsing him, Obama said he would let Kennedy, the leading liberal voice in Congress, speak for himself.
But Obama added: “We have certainly actively sought it.”
The Clinton campaign brushed off the anticipated second Kennedy endorsement. Clinton and Obama have both won scores of endorsements from fellow members of Congress.
Clinton has “a great deal of respect for Senator Kennedy,” said spokesman Doug Hattaway. But he added voters would choose a candidate “on their merits more than on their endorsements.”
With heavy support from black voters, Obama won 55 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic vote, double Clinton’s 27 percent. Former Sen. John Edwards finished third with 18 percent, casting fresh doubt on the future of his campaign.
Exit polls showed Obama won four of every five black voters, who made up more than half of the state’s electorate. He also won one-quarter of white votes, higher than many had predicted. Edwards and Clinton split the remaining white vote.
Obama did very well among young voters, including young white voters. He won two-thirds of that age group overall, taking half of the 18- to 29-year-old non-black vote, exit polls showed.
Obama said he remained the underdog to Clinton, noting she enjoys virtually 100 percent name recognition.
“It (Super Tuesday) presents more of a challenge for us,” Obama said on a flight from Georgia to Alabama, both February 5 states.
“We always knew starting at the outset that we were going to be underdogs,” Obama said. But he added: “The more people know me, the better I do.”
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and Matthew Bigg; Editing by John O’Callaghan)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/