Former president campaigns in SC

( AP ) - Former President Bill Clinton pushed his wife's health care plan in early voting South Carolina on Saturday, promoting the Democratic White House hopeful's experience on the issue in a state where nearly 700,000 people lack health insurance.

"There is not a place in America that needs Hillary's health care plan as much as South Carolina," Bill Clinton told about 100 members of a graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation's oldest black sorority.

The visit came the same weekend that Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief rival, Barack Obama , planned a series of appearances with talk show host Oprah Winfrey - in Iowa on Saturday and South Carolina and New Hampshire on Sunday.

The former president said people need to consider health care as part of all the issues facing the nation.

"We've got some big challenges," said Bill Clinton, who was campaigning along with Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader. "One is persistent inequalities in income, health care and education."

About 17 percent of South Carolina's population lacked health insurance last year, compared with 16 percent uninsured nationwide, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Bill Clinton said his wife's health care plan would cover all 672,000 uninsured South Carolinians and save the average family in the state $2,200 a year in health costs.

As first lady, Hillary Clinton spearheaded her husband's attempt to achieve universal health care. It failed in Congress, and now the New York senator says she is eager to try again. Her plan requires all Americans to obtain health insurance. Those without it would be able to choose from options that are currently available to members of Congress. Several of her Democratic rivals, including Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, also have released health care plans.

Of his wife's efforts while he was in office, Bill Clinton said it was "better to fail going in the right direction" than to not offer affordable health care. " America can make a new beginning," he said.

Later, Bill Clinton was to attend a forum on health care at the Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital before mingling with holiday shoppers in the city's open air market. He was to attend church in Charleston on Sunday, according to a campaign schedule.

Health care is a subject that one recent poll shows is critical to Democratic support here. It's also an issue Hillary Clinton appears to own in the minds of likely voters, according to a survey by The Associated Press and the Pew Research Center.

The former president's visit also could be seen as a bid to garner some publicity in the face the Winfrey visit - perhaps the biggest campaign event for Democrats in South Carolina this political season. Obama's campaign expects thousands to attend their appearance at a football stadium Sunday in Columbia.

The appearance was moved from an indoor arena to the 80,000-seat football stadium in Columbia where the University of South Carolina football team plays. Obama's campaign said it didn't expect to fill Williams-Brice Stadium, but that demand for the free tickets needed for admittance quickly surpassed the capacity of the 18,000-seat coliseum where the speeches were first slated to take place. No tickets are now needed for the Sunday event.

Bill Clinton has been on the campaign trail for his wife with increasing frequency, and has made several appearances around South Carolina, where he remains popular with black voters who comprise nearly half the party's primary vote. He already had been scheduled to speak here later in the month during an event honoring former Education Secretary and Gov. Dick Riley.

The recent AP-Pew Research poll gives Clinton the support of 45 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, followed by Obama's 31 percent. The two candidates break even on the black vote here, and that's where Winfrey's appeal could become a factor - besides her pull among women.

But Sen. Clinton has a commanding lead on the issue of health care, with 55 percent of likely voters saying she is the Democrat best able to improve the U.S. health care system. The poll puts that issue - along with the Iraq war - as top in the minds of Democrats here. Obama garnered only 19 percent on the health care question.

The two front-runners are trailed by former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards at 10 percent. The poll has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 6 percentage points.

The chairman of the state Republican Party issued a statement Saturday that said Hillary Clinton was losing support in South Carolina, a state solidly in the GOP bracket when it comes to presidential politics.

Bill Clinton "never carried our State, and Hillary Clinton won't either - if she can win her party's nomination," said GOP chairman Katon Dawson.

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