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Sweet column: South Carolina vote test of southern clout. Will race be a factor?

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COLUMBIA, S.C.—The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary Saturday is the first test of the clout of a southern state in determining who the nominee is and the first contest where race has been a major factor.

It is also the place where Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was exposed to the full firepower of the whole Clinton package — Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), an aggressive former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea, stepping out more than she did in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

“They are tough,” Obama said Thursday, speaking about the Clintons. At a debate in Myrtle Beach earlier in the week, he said he wasn’t sure which Clinton he was running against. He called “the Clinton operation” a “tough, well-honed political machine built up over the course of 20 years. We have always been the underdogs in this campaign. We have always been the outsiders, the insurgent campaign. And people have forgotten that, I think.”

But no matter who the winner is, Clinton and Obama leave the Palmetto State bloodied by their boxing here as they start campaigning in what amounts to a 22-state national primary and caucus vote Feb. 5. Then it’s back to D.C. Hillary Clinton will be in Nashville on Saturday night, and the former president will be in Independence, Mo. On Sunday, Obama hits Macon, Ga., and then Birmingham, Ala., while Michelle Obama continues on the campaign trail as the contest sprawls from coast to coast.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who have scarcely been in the Capitol since last year, return to Washington on Monday to listen to President Bush’s last State of the Union address and perhaps imagine themselves standing in the well of the House of Representatives laying out their agenda a year from now.

South Carolina native son and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who found it hard to get attention here — a state he won in 2004 — will leave having largely stayed above the fray and facing a massive financial challenge. Obama goal: Show Iowa no fluke South Carolina is the fourth and final early-state vote in the revamped Democratic schedule crafted to dilute the influence of New Hampshire and Iowa — with small minority populations — in the nominating process.

Last Saturday, Nevada was the first western state to have a say in a caucus in which union members and Hispanics flexed their political muscle.

African Americans are one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies, and South Carolina was given the primary in appreciation of its importance to the party — long before Obama emerged as the first viable African-American presidential contender. At least half of the vote is expected to be black.

If Obama is to win South Carolina, his team very much wants it with the votes of blacks and whites, to demonstrate the strength of his appeal and to show that Iowa was not a fluke. Obama won Iowa with caucus votes across the state. Clinton’s New Hampshire win seemed to be devalued because it came with the help of female voters who may have been influenced by Clinton misting up at the end. Nevada handed Clinton a decisive win in the popular vote while Obama took more delegates, 13 to her 12.

1 Comment

I definitely lean towards Barack Obama amongst the current crop of presidential candidates, and I think his larger-than-expected landslide win in South Carolina is obviously a huge story (with Caroline Kennedy's endorsement a huge symbolic lift as well). But the second story has to be that John Edwards won the white vote in South Carolina. It was a dynamic very similar to that in Iowa in 2004 -- the two leading candidates attacked each other, voters (or white voters, in SC) got turned off and looked for an alternative candidate. One difference is that race was also injected into the primary, both by the campaigns and by the media, and that may have further polarized the race. (Given such circumstances, getting 24% of the white vote for Obama wasn't bad, although it wasn't great either. Nevertheless it allowed him a landslide victory.)

John Edwards can't talk about winning the white vote publicly in such stark terms, but I am sure his campaign sees winning the white vote as a kind of pseudo-victory, and a harbinger of how they might succeed in states with large majorities of white voters, particularly rural, industrial, and southern states. He has to hope that the Clinton and Obama campaigns get stuck in the mud, and that the media continues to fail to scrutinize the Edwards campaign, while he continues to look good in debates, and that voters (particularly white voters) turned off by the mud (regardless of whether it is one-sided or not) will turn to Edwards. Even if he isn't the front runner, if he can make it a three-way race going to the convention, with no one with a majority of delegates, he might actually have a chance at the nomination if he is close enough or even slightly ahead of one or two of the others. At the very least he would be a serious player in the convention, perhaps as 'kingmaker,' and he could ensure himself of a prominent place in Democratic party politics now and in the future.

I would suspect that the Clinton campaign has taken note of this, and will back off their attacks on Obama. If attacking Obama simply drives both Clinton and Obama votes towards Edwards, even if Clinton comes out slightly ahead of Obama that ultimately could hurt Hillary Clinton if her overall delegate count goes down. That is, unless she feels she can work out a deal with John Edwards at the convention (which may explain why she approached him to talk after one of the recent debates).

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on January 26, 2008 4:19 PM.

Sweet column: Tony Rezko in the spotlight. was the previous entry in this blog.

Sweet: In South Carolina, when the Clinton, Obama press corps collide. is the next entry in this blog.

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