South Carolina Shakeout

For Democratic Presidential contenders, the future may be decided there

If Democrats are "running scared" in conservative South Carolina, as retiring Senator Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings declared this summer, you wouldn't know it from the number of Presidential candidates popping up here.

Senator John F. Kerry announced his candidacy in Charleston. Senator John Edwards dropped in just hours after he officially threw his hat into the ring. Former General Wesley K. Clark made the Citadel, the famed military academy in Charleston, the second stop of his Presidential tour. And Al Sharpton has been there so often that one minister chuckled that the preacher from New York seemed ready to open a church.

Why are all these candidates wooing voters in one of the most Republican-leaning electoral states in the country? The short answer is: They have to. Timing and an unusual cross-section of voters make South Carolina one of the hottest contests on the Democratic political calendar. Primary voters go to the polls on Feb. 3, just after the bellwether showdowns in Iowa and New Hampshire. That means candidates who come up short in those two early races could shore up their standing with a comeback in the Palmetto State -- and try to stop a potential breakout by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

THE JOBS FACTOR. Six other states are voting on Feb. 3 -- Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. But South Carolina's voter demographic has attracted more attention. It is the first contest where African Americans -- a key element of the Democratic base -- will make up a sizable chunk of the electorate. At the same time, the primary is open to both Republicans and Democrats, so moderate-to-conservative whites will be represented as well. That could be crucial if the many military retirees and other veterans in the state turn out for Clark, the former four-star general.

And there is a third component that makes the state a litmus test: South Carolina has been slammed by the jobless recovery, with some 46,000 manufacturing jobs disappearing since George W. Bush -- who broke the Republican insurgency of Senator John McCain here in 2000 -- became President.

Surveying this unusual mix of issues and demographics, most top Democratic hopefuls see a way to win the state. And for some, a win will be essential if they're to remain viable. "Every campaign is in a position where they've either gotta win it or they have to work really hard because they might gotta win," says Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi.

That's particularly true for Edwards, the front-runner in the state, with 16% support, according to a Sept. 24-29 American Research Group poll. The freshman senator -- who likes to remind South Carolinians he was born here -- is running TV spots almost daily but is far from having the race sewn up: Nearly half of voters say they're undecided.

That could create an opening for Clark. His Arkansas roots and military record could be a powerful draw for some of the 450,000 veterans and active military personnel in South Carolina. Kerry is banking that his war record can appeal to them, too. And if Kerry loses New Hampshire to Dean, a strong showing in Dixie might be imperative.

A POPULIST CHORD. For Sharpton, a long-shot candidate at best, South Carolina's large turnout by African Americans -- who account for perhaps half of primary voters -- gives him his best opportunity to amass delegate support and clout at next July's Democratic convention. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt thinks his economic populism and protectionist rhetoric will strike a chord with laid-off textile workers.

And Senator Joe Lieberman is hoping his centrist message will play well with white moderates. He also will try to exploit his appeal to blacks who still regard the Florida recount of 2000 as a willful disenfranchisement of their community and to churchgoing African Americans who appreciate his closely held religious beliefs. Playing the religious card does invite awkward moments, though. While he was attending Sunday services at the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last May, Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, was asked repeatedly by the leader of the gospel choir if he loved Jesus. The Senator just kept swaying to the music.

Dean appeared at the same church on Oct. 3 as part of a national "Generation Dean" tour. The plain-talking pol raised eyebrows when he said in February that he would campaign among Confederate-flag-waving, pickup-driving Southerners because their dire economic conditions made them natural targets for the Democratic message. In Charleston and at the church, he delivered a toned-down version of that line. "South Carolina has voted Republican for 30 years," he shouted. "Tell me what you have to show for it."

Even some of Dean's ardent supporters were skeptical about how that would fly with most South Carolinians. "I don't know if they'll take too kindly to it," chortled Charlie Gaddy of Rock Hill, who with his wife drove three hours to see Dean. "But the economy is so bad that maybe people will at least listen."

True, says Emory University political scientist Merle Black, they may listen, but South Carolina voters are unlikely to flock to Dean. "If [he] wins Iowa and New Hampshire, I think South Carolina could be a place for another candidate to emerge," says Black. Naturally, almost all of Dean's rivals are spinning fantasies about who that person might be.

By Alexandra Starr in Charleston, S.C.

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