Democrats' new steppingstone

South Carolina becomes key for party's hopefuls, who debated there Saturday.

To a Democrat running for president, South Carolina is a daunting place.

After all, no Democrat has carried the state in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter. The state party is in questionable shape, after last year's elections gave Republicans control of the legislature, 5 of 8 congressional seats, and the governorship. And South Carolina is still mired in controversy over the confederate flag: The NAACP is calling for an economic boycott while the flag keeps waving at the State House.

So it may be a fitting symbol of Democrats' challenges for 2004 that the Palmetto State has become a key steppingstone on their path to the White House.

Following on the heels of the 2000 Republican primary here, which helped secure George W. Bush's win over Sen. John McCain of Arizona, South Carolina Democrats are now holding one of the nation's earliest primaries, scheduled for Feb. 3 - one week after the New Hampshire contest. The move is already altering the Democratic campaign's geography, forcing candidates to spend significant time here: This past weekend, all nine Democrats gathered in Columbia for their first formal debate.

But South Carolina's heightened importance to Democrats is also affecting the campaign's ideological tilt, as candidates vie for support among the state's mix of African-Americans and moderate whites.

Crucial testing ground

Many Democrats argue that because South Carolina is more demographically reflective of the nation than mostly white Iowa and New Hampshire, the early primary may help produce a nominee who's better able to compete in the general election.

"It gives [candidates] an opportunity to do two things: To articulate a more moderate message for the country, but also to demonstrate electability and acceptability among African-American voters," says Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who played host to most of the candidates at his fish fry Friday night in a downtown parking garage.

The last Democrat to convincingly achieve that balance at the national level was Bill Clinton. But lately, many Southern Democrats have struggled to achieve sizable coalitions of African-Americans and moderate whites in the South - which accounts for many of the party's recent losses.

Most of the Democratic candidates see economic issues as the clearest way to cement those groups. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean argues flatly in his stump speech that rural white voters need to put divisive social issues aside and recognize that Repub-licans haven't helped them keep their jobs or get health insurance.

'Yankees go home'

Yet the challenges Democrats face were underscored by a small band of protesters across the road from the convention, holding Confederate flags and a sign that read: "Yankees go home."

Indeed, while Democrats may not want to focus on divisive cultural issues, they may find themselves inevitably drawn into the debate: During a "meet-and-greet" at the state fairgrounds, Sen. John Kerry was asked by a supporter if he would come speak at Bob Jones University - a South Carolina school that gained notoriety for banning interracial dating. "I just think it's time for Democrats to come across as Christian," she explains to a reporter standing nearby. (Senator Kerry said he would "love to," though he didn't elaborate as to how he'd approach the event.)

A key question is whether Southern candidates will have an advantage in South Carolina - and, subsequently, in the race overall. The last three Democratic presidents were all from the South, and the two Southerners in this race - North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Florida Sen. Bob Graham - repeatedly emphasized their roots.

"I will not cede a single part of this country to George W. Bush," Senator Edwards said at the party convention.

"I represent the electable wing of the Democratic Party," said Senator Graham at the debate.

Indeed, Edwards and Graham might start out with an edge among South Carolina voters, says Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee: "There still is a certain amount of parochialism in the South," he says.

But other factors could sway the primary, too. For one thing, Congressman Clyburn's endorsement is likely to be influential. Clyburn is close friends with Rep. Richard Gephardt, but has not yet thrown his support to any candidate.

Non-Southern candidates could also win support on issues that resonate here. Convers- ations with Democratic activists over the weekend revealed approval of Governor Dean's stance on balancing the budget. And many said they admired Senator Kerry's military background.

"We Southerners have a certain appreciation for war," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Most experts believe it will be extremely difficult for any Democrat to beat President Bush in almost any Southern state aside from Florida. In 2000, Mr. Bush beat Al Gore in South Carolina by 16 points. And the 2002 elections were dismal for Democrats across the South.

But Democrats can't afford to write the region off. Although a candidate could string together enough electoral votes to win the White House without any Southern states, that strategy doesn't leave much room for error. Moreover, officials point out, a campaign that's competitive in the South would likely have a better shot in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

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