Six of the seven Democratic candidates for president met with low-income voters Friday in Columbia, South Carolina where Democrats vote in the first primary to be held in a southern state next Tuesday. The topic was at the top of the agenda Friday was jobs.
All of the Democrats except Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman gathered in South Carolina's capital where they took questions from selected guests at a candidates forum.
The event was organized by a coalition of labor unions and civil rights organizations. The candidates heard from unemployed workers, people who had lost their health insurance and immigrants angry about U.S. immigration laws.
The event was the first time that nearly all of the candidates had met with a predominantly African-American audience in the campaign. Many like K. Allan Campbell who works for a social service organization in Columbia say many African-Americans are worried this year.
"I think jobs is very much one of the main issues," he said. "Also, health care is definitely a main issue, poverty and just all of the issues in the social service gamut. Definitely the unemployment rate is sky-high in South Carolina, and especially among African-Americans. So I would say that jobs are a real issue."
South Carolina has lost more than 60,000 jobs over the past three years. Most of the jobs were in manufacturing especially in textiles and many South Carolinians blame free trade policies for the loss of their jobs overseas.
Speaking at the forum, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, said if elected president he will change the nation's trade policies. "What has happened is that we are so focused on free trade that there is no fair trade anymore," he said. "We have to change that. We have to change trade agreements like NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) to make sure that they in fact put us on a more level playing field, so that we can keep jobs here in this country. It is so important."
Leaving the forum, Philip Harriot, who works as a deliveryman, says he feels Democrats will have the edge over Republicans in this year's election when it comes to the issue of jobs.
"Most of the people out of work here in this state are African Americans," he said. "I believe to bring jobs back here to South Carolina we will need a Democratic president to do that."
African-Americans will make up more than half of the Democratic voters in Tuesday's primary and all of the Democrats are campaigning hard to win their support.
A poll released Jan. 29 following the last debate before the vote, shows Senator Edwards increasing his slight lead over Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the Democratic front runner, with civil rights activist Al Sharpton in third place.