WASHINGTON – Hillary Rodham Clinton laid down a winning hand in Nevada. So did Barack Obama.

After a brawling presidential contest in the state, Clinton heads into the next battleground of South Carolina with another popular vote victory. But Obama, whose Jan. 3 Iowa victory recedes with time, walked away with one more Nevada delegate than Clinton.

The split decision shifts the fight to the South, where Obama is relying on black voters, who make up more than half of the South Carolina Democratic electorate, to give him a winning edge. Most polls have him leading Clinton in the state. But Clinton has won over many influential black leaders and had led in the state before Obama’s Iowa victory established him as a strong contender.

By eking out 13 delegates to Clinton’s 12, Obama was able to salvage a foothold in the race and keep Clinton from claiming the momentum.

The Nevada results indicated Clinton’s support among women remained strong. Significantly, nearly two-thirds of Hispanic caucus-goers said they supported her, despite Obama’s backing from a heavily Hispanic casino workers union.

Six out of 10 of these attending the state’s caucuses were women and nearly half of them backed her, according to a survey of caucus attendees. One in three women supported Obama going into the caucuses.

She and Obama split men about evenly. More than half of white voters entering the caucuses said they supported Clinton; one in three said they backed Obama. The white vote made up two-thirds of the overall vote.

Black voters heavily favored Obama, with eight out of ten voting for him. But they made up fewer than one in five voters.

That won’t be the case in South Carolina. By Friday night, at a Martin Luther King Jr. banquet in Nevada, Obama already was making his case for black voters not to forsake him.

“Sometimes we’ve got that thing in our heads that says we cannot do something,” he said as his largely black audience shouted “Yes!” in response. “We have been told for so long it’s not possible. We’ve got to wait for somebody else to tell us it’s possible before we decide it’s possible. But let me tell you, I’m here to say it’s possible. We’re doing it right now. Don’t tell me I can’t do something!”

That kind of exhortation is likely to continue throughout the week, boosted by Monday’s observation of the Martin Luther King holiday. In a visit rich with meaning, Obama will speak at King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday.

Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., predicted that black voters who have made a decision to support Obama will stick with him.

But, he added, “Obama has to really take South Carolina to reassert his place in the order.”

The Nevada results were a serious setback for John Edwards. At least one poll had placed him in a virtual tie with Clinton and Obama earlier in the week. But without money for advertising and with no union support, he mustered less than 4 percent in the caucuses.

“It begs the question of how much longer he can stay in,” Huffmon said.

The Clinton camp declared the Nevada vote all the more important because Obama had received the support of the Culinary Workers Union, the largest union in the state.

Obama may have sensed the outcome. He headed home to Chicago while the caucuses were under way and planned no public appearances. His campaign, however, trumpeted the delegate victory and noted that Obama had closed a 25-point lead that Clinton had enjoyed in the polls in November.

The week leading to the Nevada caucuses was one of the most contentious in the Democratic contest so far. In the final hours, both campaigns claimed dirty politics marred the voting. Obama, Clinton and Edwards head to South Carolina with no sign the race will turn genteel in the South.

Clinton backers went to court in an unsuccessful effort to block special precinct caucuses in Nevada seen as beneficial to Obama. Clinton herself then charged that Obama wasn’t steadfast enough against a Nevada nuclear waste site.

Obama backers ran a Spanish language ad calling Clinton “shameless” and said the New York senator “does not respect our people.”

Those were tough words in a contest that was supposed to let the Democratic Party embrace Latino voters, not drive a wedge through them.

Obama, urged by Clinton and Edwards to denounce the ad, did not.

Now comes South Carolina, no stranger itself to fight night politics.

Editor’s Note: Jim Kuhnhenn has covered politics in Washington for more than 14 years.

AP-ES-01-19-08 1943EST

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