COLUMBIA — A group of teenage girls walked down the aisle to a take a seat on one of the aluminum benches Sunday at Williams-Brice Stadium. Behind them, a man, maybe mid-30s, panned the crowd of white and black faces with a video camera as the audience grew to more than 29,000 for this one-of-a-kind rally for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama.
Dozens of volunteers, one a pretty college-aged girl with a pink shirt, matching beret and an "Oprah for VP" button, waited in anticipation while the temperature reached an unseasonable 78 degrees.
Violinist Daniel Davis, a 2007 graduate of Charleston County School of Arts; Timberland High School's marching band; Charleston rockers "The Working Title"; and headliners "Arrested Development" performed.
Then, with the energy as high as a Carolina-Clemson game, Oprah Winfrey, wearing a yellow suit jacket and gray slacks, took the stage.
"I've never done this before," the television mogul said Sunday during her 18-minute speech. "I've never done it before because in the past I've been disappointed by politicians. In the past, I've been discouraged by politicians. ... For the first time, I am stepping out of my pew because I've been inspired."
Winfrey took the road with Obama and his wife, Michelle, Saturday in Iowa and were expected to make a stop in New Hampshire after their visit in South Carolina. The rally initially was planned for The Colonial Center, with a capacity of 18,000, but was moved to the stadium after the campaign gave out all of its free tickets two days after distribution began. Organizers said they did not expect to fill the massive arena, however.
The event is thought to be the largest political gathering in this early primary state since 1976, when Jimmy Carter spoke after capturing the Democratic nomination.
A recent AP-Pew Research poll has New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton leading in South Carolina with 45 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, followed by Obama's 31 percent.
The two candidates break even on the black vote in South Carolina, and that's where Winfrey's appeal could become a factor.
Winfrey's appearance and influence is viewed by some as a political coup for Obama just weeks before the Democratic primary on Jan. 26, especially here, where black women are expected to be a determining factor in who gets the nomination.
But Vicky Olson of Mount Pleasant, a volunteer with the campaign, said that Winfrey's appeal transcends racial lines.
"She is a woman without color," Olson said. "She is not a political person. She is some- one coming out and speaking from her heart. She speaks about things that are meaningful to all of us. I don't feel she is a celebrity. She is more than that. She is family."
April Griffin, a 19-year-old from Columbia, said Winfrey won't win voters for Obama. Winfrey's influence will get voters to notice Obama.
"This was my first political rally. I wasn't that into '08," Griffin said of the presidential election. "After coming today, it was an awakening for me."
Many filling the stands — some who have come as far as Atlanta and Charlotte — said they came to see Obama, first. Winfrey's company is gravy, although none of Obama's previous visits here have drawn such a large crowd.
Arischa Connor of Columbia conceded that Winfrey lured her to the stadium, but she said that Obama had won her vote after she learned his stance on the issues, especially education.
"I am inspired," Connor said.
Winfrey, in a voice sounding a little hoarse, didn't speak directly about race, but she did mention her upbringing in the rural South, her color denoted between the lines.
She said she supports Obama because of the "wisdom" he's gathered serving his community "outside the walls of Washington" and the leadership he's demonstrated.
"Dr. King dreamed the dream," Winfrey said. "But we don't have to just dream the dream anymore. We get to vote that dream into reality."