(CNN) - The drama of the past few days seems to have benefited just one candidate: Barack Obama.
More voters who made their decision anytime in the past month – including those who did not pick a candidate until Election Day - voted for Obama than the combined total of those who went for Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, according to CNN exit polls.
- CNN Associate Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) - America is ready to elect a black or a woman president, voters in South Carolina's Democratic primary told exit pollsters Saturday.
The state's Election Commission said the voting was "going smoothly" throughout the day as voters stepped up to mark their ballots for either a black man, Sen. Barack Obama; a white woman, Sen. Hillary Clinton; or a white man, former Sen. John Edwards.
The exit polls, taken from a sampling of 1,269 voters statewide, showed that 77 percent believed the country was ready for a black president and 74 percent ready for a woman commander in chief.
With 89 percent saying it was "not good" or "poor," voters said the economy was their top concern, followed by health care and the war in Iraq. South Carolina Democrats put the same three issues in the same order in the 2004 primary.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio was also on the ballot in South Carolina, although he withdrew from the race this week.
Voters made up their minds who they backed earlier this year than in 2004, when nearly a quarter decided either the day of the primary or in the three days prior who they would support. Ten percent of this year's voters waited until Saturday to choose, with another 10 percent deciding only in the last three days. Thirty-two percent decided in the last month.
Forty-seven percent made up their minds at least a month ago, more than double the percentage of 2004.
(CNN) - South Carolina Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly ranked the economy as the top issue, CNN exit polls indicate.
More than half named the economy as their most pressing concern this year, compared to about a quarter who named health care, and less than a fifth who said Iraq. And close to 90 percent of all primary voters view the economy as not good or poor.
Considerably more of South Carolina’s Democrats are concerned about the economy than their New Hampshire counterparts. While it was the top issue in New Hampshire as well, only 38 percent of voters there said it was most important.
- CNN Ticker Producer Alexander Mooney
Mitt Romney and John McCain are in a heated back and forth over the war in Iraq. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)
(CNN) - A fired up Mitt Romney demanded John McCain apologize Saturday for recently saying the former Massachusetts governor had once supported a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq – part of the latest back and forth between the two Republican candidates leading up to the crucial Florida primary.
"I don't know why he's being dishonest," Romney told reporters in Lutz, Florida. "But that's dishonest. To say that I have a specific date is simply wrong and is dishonest and he should apologize. That is not the case, I’ve never said that."
Campaigning earlier in Fort Myers on Saturday, McCain said, "In the conflict that we’re in, I’m the only one that said we have to abandon the Rumsfeld strategy and Rumsfeld and adopt a new strategy. Gov Romney wanted to set a date for withdrawal, similar to what the democrats are seeking which would have led to the victory by al Qaeda in my view.”
McCain has suggested for days that Romney once supported a timetable for withdrawal, though he only recently began naming the Massachusetts Republican by name.
The Arizona senator later rebuked Romney's calls for an apology, at an event in Sun City.
"I think the apology is owed to the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform that we will not let them down in hard times and good," he said. "That is who the apology is owed to."
In his press conference with reporters, Romney also suggested McCain was trying to shift voters' focus away from the economy - an issue that would seem to favor the former business executive.
"I know he's trying desperately to change the topic from the economy and trying to get back to Iraq. But to say something that’s not accurate is simply wrong and he knows better," Romney said.
On Friday, McCain's campaign circulated the transcript of an interview from April, in which Romney seemed to support a private timetable.
"Well, there's no question that the president and Prime Minister al Maliki have to have a series of timetables and milestones that they speak about, but those shouldn't be for public pronouncement," Romney told ABC in April.
- CNN's Alexander Marquardt, Shirley Zilberstein, and Alexander Mooney
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) - Democrats are heading to the polls today in a primary election with a lot on the line, in a state where African Americans are expected to make up about half of the Democratic primary voters.
A win in South Carolina is crucial for Barack Obama, who could use a victory after second place finishes to Hillary Clinton in contests in New Hampshire and Nevada. The Senator from Illinois, who is hoping to become America’s first African-American president, is expected to do well with black voters.
Obama talked about the race factor late last night at a rally in South Carolina.
"After we won Iowa, everybody was so excited. Everybody said 'oh look at this. You know, African American, he's winning in a state with almost no African Americans,' and everybody's excited, and young people came out. And I think people started thinking 'well you know this isn’t hard' – but you know what, the status quo does not give up that easily,” said Obama.
White voters make up the other half of the Democratic electorate and they are expected to mostly split their votes between Clinton and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
Edwards was born in South Carolina and won the state’s primary four years ago, when he was making his first bid for the White House. Edwards has been touting his native status and as camps Clinton and Obama have squabbled, Edwards has continued to talk about the issues and suggests he’s the only adult in the field.
Speaking to reporters this morning, Edwards said "I'm keeping moving no matter what, but I feel good about how things are moving right now here today. Uh, I feel there's a lot of energy behind my campaign."
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) - Today’s the Super Bowl of Democratic politics in South Carolina – and this afternoon, the top teams found themselves in some pretty close quarters.
This afternoon, Barack Obama staffers and reporters following the Illinois senator’s campaign made a stop at the Liberty Tap Room & Grill, a Columbia watering hole and dining establishment, where several CNN-ers, including myself, were having a peaceful lunch.
About halfway through my bowl of chili, men in earpieces began sweeping the restaurant. Then Hillary Clinton’s press pool showed up, followed by her handlers and finally, the candidate herself along with her daughter, Chelsea Clinton. They worked the room, shaking hands and encouraging diners to vote.
Finally, Hillary Clinton herself stopped to greet our table - our first encounter with the New York senator since we were berated by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, at a campaign stop earlier this week. (It was a brief, pleasant exchange - so brief, in fact, we didn't get a chance to ask her to pass a message on to her husband: We swear, we don't live to "hurt the people of South Carolina.")
The surprise Clinton-Obama campaign meeting had the two sides shoulder-to-shoulder in the suddenly-cramped restaurant - but unlike Monday night's CNN showdown, there were no fireworks.
–CNN’s Carey Bodenheimer
WASHINGTON (CNN) - As South Carolina Democrats headed to the polls, the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each sought to raise the expectations of their rival while lowering their own, in dueling memos circulated to reporters Saturday.
Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson all but declared the New York senator will lose the state, and he said the Democratic race will shift to Florida afterwards - a state where Clinton holds a wide lead but whose primary has been rendered essentially meaningless by party sanctions.
"Regardless of today’s outcome, the race quickly shifts to Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Democrats will turn out to vote on Tuesday," Wolfson wrote. "Despite efforts by the Obama campaign to ignore Floridians, their voices will be heard loud and clear across the country, as the last state to vote before Super Tuesday on February 5th."
(CNN) - Turnout was strong in some places Saturday as voters streamed to the polls for South Carolina's Democratic primary election.
"Turnout has been steady, and some counties have described it as heavy," said Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the state election commission. "Our absentee numbers indicate that we could have higher turnout than last weekend," when the Republican Party held its primary.
A win in South Carolina is crucial for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who could use a victory after second-place finishes to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada.