Democrats heard gut-wrenching stories of a son killed in Iraq and health care benefits denied to a dying relative, promising South Carolina voters they will reverse President Bush's policies if sent to the White House.
Using an emotional forum to question each others' credentials, the candidates said America needs improved race relations as well as better education, health care and economic policies.
"It's one thing for people to come in front of you and talk about poverty," Sen. John Edwards told his home-state crowd. "It's a different thing to talk about poverty every time you speak, everywhere in America, which is what I do."
He and five other presidential hopefuls spoke at the session moderated by nationally syndicated radio host Tom Joyner, whose show is broadcast in 115 markets, predominantly in black and urban areas. Local families posed questions to the candidates, along with Joyner who read questions submitted by e-mail.
Howard Dean hit back at Edwards, suggesting that his five terms as Vermont's governor trump his rivals' service in Congress. "Luckily, I'm a governor so I get to tell you what I've already done, not just what I'm going to do," said Dean, whose state is mostly white and whose poverty level is below the national average.
He pledged to enact policies that would eliminate poverty among children by 2010 and wipe it out in America by 2020.
Blacks make up about half of Democratic voters here, a prime target for Al Sharpton.
"I'm the only one who has been a civil rights activist in this race," said Sharpton, the race's only black. "The rest of these people talked about what should be done. I did something about it. I put myself on the line."
Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner after big wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, tried to connect with the audience by reflecting on his service in the Vietnam War.
"Most of the kids I was with in Vietnam came out of the South side of Chicago, South-central Los Angeles or the barrio or elsewhere," he said. "They weren't the kids from the university that I went to."
Kerry, a Yale graduate who enlisted, was cheered as he called the Vietnam War and the military draft unjust.
To a woman sobbing over her family's dire health care staits, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark said, "These are cutbacks coming because George W. Bush cut taxes for wealthy people, took revenue sources from states, and states are cutting back on Medicaid."
South Carolina is one of seven states holding contests Tuesday. Polls show Edwards and Kerry atop the field here, with Clark close behind. Edwards, who was born in the state and represents neighboring North Carolina, has said he must win the first-in-the-South primary to keep his candidacy afloat.
Kerry doubled his TV advertising in the state Friday and Edwards added enough money to match him ad-for-ad, a reflection of how important South Carolina's 45 delegates and capturing a Southern state are to the campaigns.
One questioner wanted to know how Edwards, a wealthy trial lawyer, could relate to poor voters.
"The answer is the life that I have lived is the dream that is being shut off for millions of Americans," said Edwards, reminding yet another audience that he is the son of a mill worker.
An animated Edwards told the audience, "I grew up the way you grew up. I come from the same place. I spent 20 years in courtrooms fighting for you. I will never forget where I came from and you can take that to the bank."
Arizona, Delaware, Missouri and Oklahoma also hold primaries Tuesday, New Mexico and North Dakota caucuses. At stake are a total of 269 delegates, more than 12 percent of the 2,162 needed to win the nomination.
Polls show Kerry leading in Missouri and Arizona, the two most delegate-rich states. Clark, Kerry and Edwards are fighting it out in Oklahoma, and strategists give Kerry the edge elsewhere.
The candidates spoke separately, sharing the stage of Columbia's Township Auditorium with groups of social activists from around the country.
The candidates heard heart-wrenching personal stories. Edwards consoled a woman, Elaine Johnson, whose son died in Iraq. Taking her hand, the first-term senator said, "God bless you, ma'am, for what you're going through."
Clark dismissed Bush's immigration plan "as a political gimmick for an election year," but did not detail his own proposal. Bush's proposal would give currently undocumented immigrants renewable three-year permits to work U.S. jobs.
The forum came one day after a low-key debate underscored a new dynamic in the campaign. Kerry, not Dean, was the target.
Responding to a question from a woman who said she got out of an abusive relationship, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich told the forum that he would help change public attitudes about domestic violence by creating a national Department of Peace.
Sen. Joe Lieberman skipped the forum to campaign in Delaware.