If the results buoyed the Obama team, it left the campaign of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton facing a new set of questions. Her advisers’ steady attacks on Mr. Obama appeared to prove fruitless, if not counterproductive, and the attack-dog role of former President Bill Clinton seemed to have backfired.
Indeed, surveys of voters leaving the polls showed that many Democrats who believed Mr. Clinton’s role was important ended up voting for Mr. Obama.
Last week, Clinton advisers believed Mr. Clinton was rattling Mr. Obama and drawing his focus away from his message. The results on Saturday indicated, instead, that voters were impressed with Mr. Obama’s mettle and agreed with him that the Clintons ran an excessively negative campaign here.
“The criticism of Obama ended up really helping him going forward, I think,” said Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, an influential black Democrat who remained neutral in the primary. “If he ends up winning the nomination, he will definitely face an onslaught of attacks this fall, and he may look back on South Carolina as the place that toughened him up.”
Mrs. Clinton may have won the last two nominating contests, in New Hampshire and Nevada, but she is now left to decide whether she needs to reassess her strategy as the race shifts from a state by state battle to a national scale.
South Carolina voters showed little taste for the Clintons’ political approach. They said in exit polls that their main concern was the economy; during an all-out campaign blitz on behalf of his wife here, Mr. Clinton spent the last week highlighting Mr. Obama’s record on Iraq and his recent statements about the transformational nature of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Mrs. Clinton’s advisers were minimizing the importance of South Carolina even before polls closed, saying the primaries in Florida on Tuesday and in a swath of states on Feb. 5 were of more importance. But she will have to reckon with the rejection of her candidacy by black voters and the mixed support she received from white Democrats and younger voters here — two groups she must have by her side in order to build a cross-section of support in the coming contests.
“The Clintons will now have to deal with a perception of hollowness about her strategy, that she is leaving it to her husband to take care of things and allowing him to overshadow her political message,” said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.
Mrs. Clinton also had trouble competing here with Senator John Edwards, the third Democratic candidate, who decisively won among white men.
It appears this was a clear rejection of Bill Clinton. Kudos to the South Carolina voters.