COLUMBIA — Black people in South Carolina registered to vote at nearly twice the rate of whites over the past 10 months, according to state Election Commission data that could bode well for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in a solidly Republican state.

Democrats said the numbers were encouraging for Barack Obama. State party Chairwoman Carol Fowler said Democrats registered 160,000 new voters since the January primaries that saw her party's turnout eclipse that of the GOP.

"Certainly there is a ton of appeal for African-Americans," Fowler said. "We're hearing a lot of anecdotal stories about older African-Americans who never bothered to register."

Republicans said they also have worked to increase voter rolls and noted people can vote for candidates from any party, no matter which one gets them to sign up.

"We've certainly been working very hard to register new voters," said state GOP spokesman Rob Godfrey.

Historically, nine in 10 black voters cast ballots for Democrats, though President Bush picked up 15 percent of the state's black vote in 2004.

State data shows the total number of blacks registered to vote in the state rose to nearly 680,000 — still about one-third of the total number of whites registered.

Overall, blacks make up 27 percent of the voting rolls; Hispanic and other non-white groups account for 2 percent, according to state data.

Democrats said they were buoyed by the increase in the number of young black voters registering: a 23-percent increase for women ages 18-24 and a 31-percent increase for men.

"That is a notoriously difficult group to get out to vote," said Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson. She said Obama has only an "outside shot" at winning South Carolina for the Democrats.

"If they get everybody to the polls they can make it close," she said.

Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to carry a presidential election in South Carolina and then at a time when the state and the South were just building major Republican organizations.

And even the new voters aren't expected to change that bottom line in a solidly Republican state where the GOP holds eight of nine statewide offices, two U.S. Senate seats, four of six U.S. House seats and lopsided control of the Statehouse.

"It's unlikely Barack Obama will carry South Carolina," College of Charleston political scientist Bill Moore said, although he could narrow the margin substantially the margin of loss even without the big media buys he's using in North Carolina.

"I think it has the potential to be the closest presidential race in South Carolina since 1980," Moore added. That's based largely on Obama's organizational ability. "The Obama campaign has just done a phenomenal job in putting together an organization that touches base with people."

Overall, voter registration shot up heading into the Nov. 4 election. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, the last date by which detailed demographic data is available, 230,668 people were added to the state's voter list.

Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said at least 16,000 others were added to the rolls between Oct. 1 and Oct. 4, when registration closed. The state won't have another batch of demographic data available until the week before the election.

"We could have upward of 300,000 compared with 200,000 in 2004," Whitmire said of new registrants.