The path of all the 2008 presidential Democratic contenders leads to House Majority Whip James Clyburn, whose political influence is exponentially magnified because he is from South Carolina, one of the four states holding the initial presidential votes in January 2008. The strongest January finisher probably has the best chance of winning the Democratic nomination, with what amounts to a Feb. 5 national primary taking shape.
"I think that people are going to, you know, look at these candidates and make judgments about them based about not just where they stand on issues but whether or not they are able to arouse their aspirations, whether they are going to move them emotionally," Clyburn told me.
He also, in the course of our conversation, threw water on the title poet Toni Morrison bequeathed on former President Clinton: She called him "the first black president."
The powerful Clyburn reigns from a majestic office with gold trimmed warm yellow walls on the third floor of the Capitol just above the House speaker's suite, with splendid views of the national mall. When I interviewed Clyburn on Tuesday about the new importance of South Carolina since it moved up its primary to Jan. 29, my weekend visit to Selma was on my mind. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama filled the pews of two historic churches in Selma, preaching in separate sermons about the civil rights agenda.
Bill Clinton flew down to stump in public by his wife's side for the first time and accept an induction into the Voting Rights Hall of Fame. He got a rousing reception, and one scene is vivid: how he jumped out of his car and bounded out to greet the crowds gathered on the grounds of what seemed to be a low-income housing complex across the street from the Brown Chapel AME.
Though Obama was a toddler and Clinton in high school during the 1960s civil rights struggle -- including the violent March 1965 battle on the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma commemorated on Sunday -- each laid claims to being the fruits of the fights fought by the elders of the civil rights movement.
African Americans could make up more than half of the 2008 Democratic primary votes in South Carolina. Clyburn is the first House member from South Carolina to be majority whip -- and just the second African American to hold the post.
Clyburn told me he will likely endorse. But it is clear he will take his time. He wants to keep South Carolina in play, and if one candidate seems to have a lock on the Palmetto State, the pack will just move on to the Feb. 5 contests.
I asked Clyburn an overall question about the impact of the Clinton and Obama visits to Selma. His answer addressed specifically Obama and the African-American vote.
"I think this whole thing that is developing that you've got to have civil rights credentials in order to be a credible black candidate is b.s.," Clyburn told me.
"I mean that is craziness. If that is what's required, that means that we failed. And I don't think we did. I think John Lewis made the sacrifices he did on the Edmund Pettus Bridge so his son would not have to make that kind of a march.
"So why are we saying that you have to make that march? That if you are not from that march you are not credible. That's crazy stuff."
He said Obama "energizes young people in a way that I have not seen. . . . The extent to which that all gets translated into votes is an open question."
I asked Clyburn about Bill Clinton's impact, if he campaigned in South Carolina for Hillary.
"I don't think all that much."
"Why would that be?" I asked.
"Because you know, this whole thing; Toni Morrison is a poet and her reference to Clinton as the first black president was poetry. . . . She was being poetic when she said that. She was not being prophetic. There is a difference."
I wondered, "What is the difference."
"Poetry is poetry. It deals with emotion. . . . Bill Clinton, I thought, was a good president. But come on, the first black president? Nah, come on."
As for a timetable, Clyburn won't say. "Look, this primary is important not just to me, it is important to the South Carolina Democratic Party. And I am not going to do anything that I think will lessen the impact of this primary.