FLORENCE, S.C., Jan 24 (Reuters) - Democrat Barack Obama’s big lead over rival Hillary Clinton has slipped but is still substantial two days before the U.S. presidential primary election in South Carolina, where candidates were competing vigorously to win support from black voters.
Former President Bill Clinton, whose wife is battling with challenger John Edwards to stay out of third place in South Carolina, lashed out at Obama and the media for elevating race in the campaign.
Obama’s lead fell 3 points overnight to give him a 39 percent to 24 percent edge over Clinton in South Carolina, according to a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Thursday.
Edwards, a former senator from neighboring North Carolina, climbed four points to reach 19 percent — within striking distance of Clinton and second place.
The poll has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
The shifts have occurred since Monday night’s angry debate in Myrtle Beach, where Obama and Clinton traded harsh accusations about their records and Edwards chastised the pair for squabbling.
Since then, Obama and Clinton have cranked up their bitter fight for the Democratic nomination in November’s election to succeed President George W. Bush. Both candidates prepared harsh radio ads in South Carolina on Wednesday attacking each other.
Bill Clinton said on Wednesday it was unfair that the former first lady had been accused of “playing the race card” in the campaign.
“This is almost like once you accuse somebody of racism or bigotry or something, the facts become irrelevant. There are facts here,” he said, adding the media was concentrating on racial tensions instead of focusing on issues that were more important to voters.
“This is what you live for. But this hurts the people of South Carolina,” he told reporters.
Pollster John Zogby said Monday’s debate had shifted sentiment among voters in the southern state.
“Since the debate, Obama and Clinton have dropped and Edwards has been rising,” Zogby said. “There is definitely some movement here.”
Obama’s dip came largely among black voters, who are expected to make up more than half of the Democratic primary electorate in South Carolina on Saturday.
Support for Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president, fell from 65 percent to 56 percent among African-Americans, with Clinton climbing two points among blacks to 18 percent.
Edwards held a slight lead over Clinton among likely white voters at 35 percent to 32 percent. Obama had 19 percent.
In the last of the three days of polling on Wednesday, Edwards led Clinton for second place and has been climbing steadily each day.
“If the trajectories continue, it’s within the realm of possibility that Clinton could come in third,” Zogby said.
Clinton, a New York senator who would be the first woman U.S. president, came in third behind the winner Obama and Edwards in Iowa, but bounced back with wins in New Hampshire and Nevada heading into the showdown in South Carolina.
Obama has spent the past two days on a bus tour of South Carolina, while Clinton has been out of the state campaigning in California, Arizona, Pennsylvania and New Jersey ahead of the Feb. 5 "Super Tuesday" round of contests in more than 20 states. (Writing by John Whitesides and Jeff Mason; editing by David Wiessler) (For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)