WASHINGTON – Presidential hopeful Barack Obama wowed the nation over the weekend with his wide first place finish in South Carolina, defying the odds and challenging skeptics who said the Illinois senator would not claim another major victory after a string of close defeats.
Obama won Saturday across demographic lines and only lost to chief rival Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) among voters 65 and older, where Clinton beat Obama 40 to 32 percent, according to the exit polls.
Overall, Obama won 55 percent of the South Carolina votes – more than double Clinton's 27 percent. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina came in third with 18 percent.
"Tonight, the cynics who believe that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina," Obama said to supporters Saturday.
South Carolina was particularly critical for Obama to prove that his win in Iowa three weeks ago was not a one-state wonder, but that he is a genuine challenger to the well-established Clinton, who beat Obama in New Hampshire and Nevada.
"This was a very difficult campaign for Barack Obama," said Donna Brazile, a CNN analyst who led former Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid in 2000. "He had an uphill climb. The establishment of the Democratic Party, you know, they're clearly backing Clinton and put tremendous resources in the state to defeat Barack Obama."
Thom Mann, a political analyst for the Brookings Institution, noted ahead of Saturday's election that "[t]he concern all along has been the possibility of Obama, in spite of his broad, nonracial appeal, running poorly among whites."
But Obama laid those fears to rest and won a significant portion of white voters, taking in nearly a quarter while Clinton and Edwards split the remainder. He also won among voters under the age of 65 and among woman voters, who helped Clinton win in New Hampshire and Nevada.
However, there is no argument that Obama did particularly well among black voters, who made up half of Saturday's electorate, according to exit polls. The Illinois senator, who is trying to become the nation's first African-American president, is estimated to have taken in more than 80 percent of the black vote.
South Carolina's black Christian leaders can be credited for significantly helping Obama gain ground with black voters. It is well-known that the African American community is overwhelmingly religious and black pastors have great influence over their flock.
Last month, the Obama campaign had proudly unveiled a committee of top African American religious leaders, including nearly 130 senior pastors from some of the largest and most prominent churches in South Carolina. The endorsements of the prominent black leaders helped boost Obama's image as the candidate that African Americans should vote for.
The Illinois senator also frequented churches across the state to speak about faith and politics and threw several high-profile Gospel concerts in South Carolina, featuring Grammy Award-winning artists, to appeal to black religious voters.
Beliefnet.com's God-o-Meter has consistently rated Obama as the Democratic candidate that spoke the most about God in his speeches.
But not every Christian is enamored with Obama. Conservative Christian right organizations such as Focus on the Family and Family Research Council have denounced the presidential candidate as "extremely" liberal pointing to his support of a strong civil union law that gives benefits to gay partners; allowing minors to cross state borders for abortion; and opposition to the abstinence program in favor of sex education that promotes the distribution of condoms.
"This man is no friend to anything we (values voters) hold dear," said Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family recently during a primary special presented by the ministry's Citizenlink publication.
For most supporters, Obama's appeal is his seeming ability to bring about change and unite foes. The Illinois senator is running on a platform that promises to unite people with opposing views and reform a broken Washington.
Next up for the Democratic candidates is Super Tuesday, when more than 20 states will head to the polls on Feb. 5. The Republican candidates, meanwhile, will first face off on Jan. 29 in Florida before also facing Super Tuesday. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona had won South Carolina exactly a week before Obama.