US black vote becomes crucial

MIAMI - Republican presidential hopefuls kept their focus on economics as they began campaigning in Florida, where no one is a favorite despite John McCain's most recent win in South Carolina.

MIAMI - Republican presidential hopefuls kept their focus on economics as they began campaigning in Florida, where no one is a favorite despite John McCain's most recent win in South Carolina.

Democrats pledged unity, as they turned to race and religion ahead of their first showdown in the southern state of South Carolina, whose black voters will play a large part in the candidates' fates.

McCain, who won the coveted January 8 New Hampshire primary, scored his second victory in the Republicans' South Carolina primary on Saturday, a contest that in 2000 scuttled his presidential bid and which, since 1980, has seen its winner go on to claim the party's nomination.

Invigorated after his campaign months earlier seemed doomed, the veteran Arizona senator and former prisoner-of-war was optimistic ahead of the 10-day sprint to Florida's next Tuesday primary where a win would afford the candidate a whopping 57 delegates and a huge jolt of energy in the run-up to February 5, when 22 states hold nominations.

In a history-making Democratic campaign in which a black man and a woman are the leaders in a tight race for the party's nomination, Barack Obama on Sunday called for unity to overcome US problems and acknowledged that "none of our hands are clean" when it comes to healing divisions.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who edged out Obama for the popular vote in Nevada's Democratic primary, only to see the senator secure more delegates, picked up a black church leader's endorsement in New York.

The two have been locked in a fierce battle since Obama won the January 3 Iowa caucuses and Clinton emerged triumphant in New Hampshire, five days later. Their campaign has vacillated between congenial exchanges, a dispute on race and, before Nevada's race on Saturday, late charges of dirty politics.

So far, no front-runner has emerged, making Saturday's contest in South Carolina, where blacks make up about 50percent of the Democratic electorate, particularly important going into the February 5 de facto national primary.

Trailing candidate John Edwards is looking to make the Democratic contest a three-way race with a strong showing in South Carolina, which neighbours his home state of North Carolina.

Obama took to the pulpit at Martin Luther King Junior's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on the eve of the federal holiday marking the civil rights hero's birth 79 years ago.

He based his speech on King's quote that "Unity is the great need of the hour". Obama is counting on blacks to stick with him in South Carolina to halt his losing streak in state races, and his campaign has worked to overcome concerns among black voters that he would not be able to win an election in white America. He lost Nevada despite winning 83percent of blacks, who made up 15percent of the total vote.

He also has been stepping up his effort to correct the misconception that he is a Muslim, now that the presidential campaign has hit the US Bible Belt in the South. - Sapa-AP

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