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Black Ministers Back Clinton In S.C.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton picked up endorsements from dozens of black ministers Tuesday in South Carolina, an early voting state where she and rival Barack Obama have been courting the critical black vote.

The clergy were drawn to the New York senator for her views on health care, jobs and other issues, said a state representative who helped organize the endorsements. "They felt this was the best candidate addressing their concerns," said state Rep. Harold Mitchell, a Democrat from this northern part of the state.

Nearly half of South Carolina's Democratic primary voters are black, and ministers can play a huge role in shaping the political direction of their congregations. More than 60 ministers gathered with Clinton on a stage at a hotel and her campaign said 88 were in the room where the endorsements were announced.

Clinton, in a wide-ranging speech to a crowd of more than 450, touched on her plans to expand health care, better public education and improve the image of the U.S. She said she would send emissaries around the globe - and mentioned former Secretary of State Colin Powell as "someone I know very well" - to send a message the era of "cowboy diplomacy is over."

"I understand we've got to take on health insurance companies and the drug companies," she said. "Don't you think it is time for us to do that?"

The Rev. Timothy Brown, of Cleveland Chapel in Spartanburg, said Clinton will get government to a "better plateau." He also referenced Obama, a first-term senator who wrote a book called "The Audacity of Hope."

"We need to look for a leader that is ready to lead right now," Brown said. "We don't need to be filling our heads with hopes and dreams."

Also Tuesday, Clinton's campaign released her proposal to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS, which in part focuses on fighting the spread of the illness in minority communities. Clinton would double the HIV/AIDS research budget at the National Institutes of Health to $5.2 billion annually and spend at least $50 billion within five years around the globe, according to an e-mail from her campaign.

Clinton did not focus on the proposal in her first two of three appearances in South Carolina. In Aiken, she was asked by one man about whether gays should be able to openly serve in the military. "I don't believe 'Don't ask, don't tell' worked," she said.

The endorsements from the South Carolina ministers came as Clinton tries to widen what one recent poll showed was as much as a 10 percentage point lead in the state over Obama, an Illinois senator.

"This is just the beginning," said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Columbia minister working for Clinton. Similar announcements are in the works in other regions of the state, he said.

Another state senator, Harold Mitchell, told CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod that his heart had him backing Obama early on, but he switched to Clinton last month.

"We've got to get away from these emotional feelings," Mitchell said. "If you put that aside and look at the candidates... it's a no-brainer."

Obama has pulpit endorsements of his own. He's visited churches in the state and his campaign has organized forums on faith at churches and community centers. It also sponsored a recent gospel music tour.

In October, Obama stood in front of the pulpit of a Greenville church and told a mostly full, 4,200 seat sanctuary that faith was everything to him. "It's what keeps me grounded. It's what keeps my eyes set on the greatest of heights," he said.

Clinton's husband remains popular with blacks in South Carolina, and the former president apparently helped get the support that was announced Tuesday during a visit to the state last month.

Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, said courting the pulpit is key for the black vote here.

"The church and individual members play an extremely important role in black politics," Fowlers said in an interview last month.

"There's very stiff, intense competition for the hearts and minds of the African-American clergy," he said. "Collectively, they have huge influence."

Obama's campaign said it has held forums educating people about his faith across the state and recruited 180 volunteers who are organizers in their "faith communities."

"Senator Obama is proud of the tremendous support he has from South Carolina congregations and ministers. The successful Obama Faith Forums have allowed us to capture enthusiasm among voters who are interested in how Obama's faith impacts his vision to transform our nation and have a positive impact on issues like healthcare, poverty and education," the campaign said in a statement.

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