On January 26, the Democratic Party presidential candidates compete in a primary election in the southern state of South Carolina. It is the first primary in a state with a large African-America population, and that is expected to affect the outcome. VOA's Jeff Swicord reports.

The top Democratic Party front-runners converged on South Carolina this week, attending the annual Martin Luther King Day rally at the state capitol in Columbia. They spoke warmly of the slain civil rights leader in a state with one of the largest per capita African-American populations in the country.

South Carolina is the first southern primary state, and often sets the tone for other southern states with significant African-American populations.

Scott Huffman is a professor of southern politics at Winthrop University in Rock Hill South Carolina. He says race and gender will play a significant role on primary day. "African-Americans make up about 30 percent of South Carolina's overall population but they will make up to about 50 percent of the Democratic primary vote on election day."

Early opinion polls show Senator Hillary Clinton had a significant lead in South Carolina prior to the Iowa caucuses. Both she and husband, former President Bill Clinton, have strong ties to African-American leaders across the country.

Professor Huffman says African-American support began to change in South Carolina when Senator Barack Obama won Iowa, a state with a 2.5 percent black population. "The black voters in South Carolina realized white voters will vote for Barack Obama. That caused a trickle of soft supporters of Hillary Clinton to begin moving over to Barack Obama. And his lead in the African-American community has been growing ever since."

Both campaigns have been working hard to overcome their demographic weaknesses. The Obama campaign flew in their chief operating officer, Betsy Myers, to hold events like one near Charleston, targeting women voters.

She spent most of her career working on women's issues and served as the director of women's initiatives in Bill Clinton's White House. "Women make up more of the voters these days and actually there has been a gender gap all the way back to the Reagan election in 1980. So women vote and their voice matters. This campaign cares deeply about American women and making sure they have a seat at the table," she said. 

Her message this night was about leadership, an issue that is important to many undecided voters like Ellen Elmaleh. She says, "I want strong leadership, I don't want to be a warring nation. I don't want to have a war against anything. I want to be for things, not against things."

The Clinton campaign has also brought in some well-known figures to try and shore up they're declining support in the African-American community. Democratic Congresswomen Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas told us, "I think that Senator Clinton would be the better presidential candidate for a number of reasons. It is important to have experience, deep-rooted experience. It is important to have strength of leadership. But you combine that with ideas passion and heart. I see that in her candidacy and her leadership," Jackson said.

Not all South Carolinians are thinking along race and gender lines. Many, like college student Jessica Gourdin, are simply looking for the best candidate. "I am just trying to stick with the issues. Because, race and gender, people are always going to look towards that to make their choice. I am trying to stick with the basic issues like who is the better candidate in the end," Gourdin said.

Recent opinion polls show Barack Obama with a 10 point lead over Hillary Clinton. South Carolina is a state with a lot of soft, or undecided, voters. Just one month ago, Clinton had a 10 point lead. But as the nation learned in New Hampshire, where Obama was expected to win but then lost by two percent, polls can be wrong.