SOUTH CAROLINA--In some of their final speeches before voters went to the polls in South Carolina, Hillary Clinton and Barack's Obama hit almost all the same themes and seemed to pitch their appeals particularly to the predominantly African-American crowds. With the candidates' substances so apparently similar, South Carolina's voters may well be judging on style.
"She was calm and cool about the situation," said Shannon Steele, a sophomore at Benedict College, the historically black school where Clinton opened her last day of South Carolina complaining. Steele was an undecided voter coming in, but she had a positive image of Clinton, in part because how the candidate had handled herself during her husband's very public infidelity. "She didn't overreact, and didn't underreact. To the public eye, it was like she never knew, and that's the way I think it should be."
When Clinton strolled onto the alter of Benedict's Baptist chapel, flanked by four prominent African-Americans endorsers and wearing a bright yellow suit, she certainly fit Steele's image of the candidate as calm and cool. While the speakers offered their endorsements, Clinton sat with her hands in her lap, listening as if she were just another member of the congregation.
In contrast, Barack Obama's rally at the Civic Center in Florence actually felt like a church service, with the candidate as charismatic minister. Obama bounded on stage in a slim gray suit with a slight sheen. Instead of standing at a podium, he strolled up and down, delivering his speech like one long, Joycian sentence. In the places where Clinton offers statistics--"student loans used to be around 3.2, and now they're up to 6.8--" Obama takes a breath and lets the audience fill in the space.
"And what are we gonna do about student loans?" Obama said.
"Ohhhh," moaned the audience.
"Those loans are getting in the way..."
"They're in the way!"
"They're getting in the way of people going to college..."
"...and getting good jobs..."
"...'cause now we have young people starting out with debt!"
On the floor, the audience stomped and hissed.
"We've got get those rates down!"
In the back, two brothers from Georgia turned to each other said, "That's right, that's right." Many people had begun to sway. Later, a woman who declined to be named said, "When Obama talked about robbing Peter to pay Paul, it was like he was talking directly to me." If the tone of Clinton's event was composed, the tone of Obama's was ecstatic.
Of course, we won't know until the end of the day today what effect these tones actually have in the voting booth. It's worth noting, however, that Clinton is sounding increasingly like Obama. At her speech in Benedict College, she mentioned she'd worked for the Children's Defense Fund after law school in part because she wanted to serve people more than she wanted to make money (Obama has made his decision to turn down high-paying law jobs to work as a community organizer a key part of his political biography.)
She also injected some warm, improvised humor into her speech, interrupting herself to invite the people standing in the back of the church to take seats up front. "There are spaces up here," she said. "We're not gonna take a collection."
It was a line and a delivery that could've been lifted straight from an Obama rally.
Of course, in politics imitation isn't always a compliment. Sometimes it's simply a way to disarm one's opponent. After Clinton's event, Shannon Steele, the initially undecided voter, said she was definitely voting for Clinton today and had no intention of seeing any of the other candidates. She certainly wasn't at the Obama rally later that night. Despite the campaign's apparent expectation of a full house, there remained plenty of room to stand, and before the speech was over, the audience began to trickle out.