LORIS, S.C. — In the beauty parlors that are among the social hubs for black women in the Carolinas, loyalties are being tested as voters here contemplate the first Democratic primary in the South. Clara Vereen, who has been working here in rural eastern South Carolina as a hairstylist for more than 40 of her 61 years, reflects the ambivalence of many black women as she considers both Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
“I’ve got enough black in me to want somebody black to be our president,” she said in her tiny beauty shop, an extension of her home, after a visit from an Obama organizer. “I would love that, but I want to be real, too.” Part of being real, said Ms. Vereen, whom everyone calls Miss Clara, is worrying that a black president would not be safe. “I fear that they just would kill him, that he wouldn’t even have a chance,” she said as she styled a customer’s hair with a curling iron. One way to protect him, she suggested, would be not to vote for him.
And Mrs. Clinton? “We always love Hillary because we love her husband,” Ms. Vereen said. Then she paused. Much of the chitchat in her shop is about whether a woman could or should be president. “A man is supposed to be the head,” she said. “I feel like the Lord has put man first, and I believe in the Bible.” Black women are a crucial constituency in South Carolina, which may hold its voting as early as Jan. 19. In 2004, about half of the state’s Democratic primary voters were black (in Iowa and New Hampshire, black voters made up about 1 percent or less of Democrats). And 29 percent of all Democratic primary voters here were black women, according to exit polls, giving them a pivotal role.
“It’s a key voting segment,” said Carey Crantford, a Democratic pollster based in Columbia. “They hold the balance of power, all other things being equal.” Most polls here show Mrs. Clinton leading and Mr. Obama second, while John Edwards, who won the state’s primary in 2004, has been a distant third. Pollsters caution that polling in a contest like this can be unreliable because whites might not be telling the truth when they say they will vote for a black man, and blacks might not be telling the truth when they say they are undecided.
Still, Mr. Obama appears to have a big lead over Mrs. Clinton among black men, said Adolphus G. Belk Jr., a political scientist at Winthrop University who co-directed a recent study of black voters. Black women, Dr. Belk said, are divided equally between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, and significantly, perhaps a third are undecided.
“They stand at the intersection of race, class and gender,” he said. “Black men say to them, ‘Sister, are you with us?’ and at the same time white women say, ‘Sister, are you with us?’” In interviews with more than three dozen black women both here and in Columbia, the state capital, most said they were still puzzling over which way to go. Some said that specific issues like health care and education were important to them, but most thought their votes would be based on intangibles and determined in the end by prayer.
Vanessa Gerald, 38, a stylist at Carrie’s Magic Touch, a salon around the corner from Miss Clara’s, said she was torn because Mr. Obama was “trying to help his people, which Hillary is too.” Ms. Gerald said she would “have to go with my faith” in making her final decision but was thrilled to have such a choice.
“This is history here,” she said, puckering up a client’s hair. “On both sides. Either way, it’s history. So let’s see what history going to bring in.” In trying to reach these voters, the Obama campaign has organized a network around beauty salons, a central gathering spot for black women, particularly in rural areas like this one.
Ashley Baia, 23, the Obama organizer here in Horry County, is like a modern-day circuit rider, traveling from salon to salon on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the busiest days for getting a hairdo. Ms. Baia makes repeated visits, hoping to develop relationships with the owners and customers and giving spiels in which she notes that after law school, Mr. Obama skipped going to a big firm and went to work instead on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer.
Betty McClain, 51, a bus driver who was waiting to have her hair done at Miss Clara’s, said after Ms. Baia left that she liked what she heard about Mr. Obama. But she likes Mrs. Clinton, too. “She’s already been president before,” Ms. McClain said approvingly, dismissing Bill Clinton’s role in his own administration. “He was just there,” Ms. McClain said of Mr. Clinton. “He was just the husband, that’s all. She really ran the country.” This shows what the Obama campaign is up against. Voters tend to know more about the Clintons than they do about Mr. Obama.
Another striking theme that emerged in the interviews was how often these women described an almost maternal concern for Mr. Obama’s safety, which they take seriously by noting that he was given Secret Service protection in May, earlier than any presidential candidate ever except Mrs. Clinton, who already had protection as a former first lady. The assertion this year by Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle, that as a black man he could be shot “going to the gas station” has done little to quell their fear.