COLUMBIA, S.C., (CNN) – To hear some tell it, the 2008 South Carolina primary clash between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was a few steps away from a full-blown race riot.
“It was unbelievable down here in 2007 and 2008,” said Bridget Tripp, a Democratic organizer from Lexington who supported Obama in that year’s primary. “Bill Clinton was going through downtown Columbia calling Barack Obama a racist.”
It never got that bad, of course. But in the runup to the contest and in its aftermath, the Clinton campaign scrambled to explain away comments that rankled the black community: Hillary Clinton seeming to downplay Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in passing the Civil Rights Act, Bill Clinton’s biting characterization of Obama’s campaign as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen” and a range of remarks from Clinton allies that seemed to belittle Obama’s achievements.
Bill Clinton’s remarks in particular went over so poorly that South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, then the state’s highest-ranking African-American in Congress, went on national television and told the former president to “chill.” The morning after Obama’s crushing 28-point victory, Bill Clinton waved it off in glib terms, comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson, just another black candidate with black support.