Make or break? Primary colors in South Carolina

Feb. 3 vote is a key test of electability.

An icy rain lashes the stained-glass windows of the Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church as Pastor Marion Newton delivers a fiery political sermon.

Like David battling Goliath, he thunders, this African-American congregation is fighting a number of modern-day "giants." Jobs are heading overseas. Children are dropping out of school. It sounds like a standard Democratic catalog - until Pastor Newton adds a cultural concern: "We're getting to the point where people can marry the same sex!" he exclaims. "That's a Goliath in our lives!"

Sitting in the front row, Rep. Richard Gephardt maintains an impassive expression. If the pastor's remarks contrast with his position - Gephardt opposes gay marriage, but he supports civil unions, and has a lesbian daughter who often campaigns on his behalf - he doesn't let on. When it's his turn to speak, he focuses on his humble roots and the prominent role of the Baptist church in his life.

Cultural conservatism is just one factor setting South Carolina apart from other early primary states - making it one of the least predictable contests in the Democratic nominating process.

With former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean dominating in New Hampshire and widening his lead in Iowa, the seven states holding Feb. 3 primaries seem likely to play a decisive role in halting Dr. Dean's momentum - or adding to it. Of those, South Carolina is shaping up as the biggest contest. With its mix of African-Americans and moderate Democrats - neither of whom are much of a factor in Iowa and New Hampshire, but who are critical voting blocs for Democrats - many strategists argue this state will be the first real test of how candidates will fare in the general election.

"It's the first state where there's a significant minority population, which changes the dynamic," says David Axelrod, an adviser to Sen. John Edwards. But white voters in South Carolina "tend to be more conservative" on issues from defense to taxes, he says. "Candidates who come closer to those views will do better with that constituency - and it's a challenge for candidates who don't."

Candidates are already competing harder here than in any other Feb. 3 state, and polls show the race is up for grabs. The leader in most surveys is Senator Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and represents North Carolina. He's been running ads here longer than anyone, has the most endorsements, and has campaigned here often - including a visit to Charleston last week.

But others are close behind, and any one of them could overtake Edwards. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, another Southerner, is pouring in resources, and could gain an edge with the sizable veteran population.

The Rev. Al Sharpton makes regular Sunday visits, focusing on registering African-American voters - who could make up half of the primary electorate.

Representative Gephardt's years as House leader have given him name recognition - and more important, he's received the endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn, the state's top African-American leader.

Dean also could do better than expected. While he's been criticized for having a mostly white base, he is expanding his minority outreach - and campaigned here with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Likewise, he may get a boost from his endorsement by Al Gore.

Dean may also wind up benefiting from what experts believe will be a relatively low turnout. Unlike New Hampshire and Iowa, where residents follow the campaign closely and often gravitate toward underdogs, many South Carolinians confess to paying little attention, suggesting that the candidate with the most momentum could carry the state. Television advertising is likely to have a greater effect here, too - giving an extra advantage to the candidate with the most money.

The top concern for most voters here is the economy and jobs, reflecting the tens of thousands of textile and manufacturing jobs lost in recent years. While most candidates are taking more protectionist positions on trade than in the past, Gephardt's campaign believes his strong labor ties and opposition to trade agreements like NAFTA may give him an edge.

Gephardt has "always stood up for working people," says Barry Faile, waiting to hear the congressman speak in Rock Hill. "I certainly feel like we're obligated to support him," he continues. The local acetate plant Mr. Faile worked for has gone from more than 2,000 workers to 300. And the cost of his retiree health insurance has more than doubled in two years.

Faile likes Senator Edwards, but he thinks Gephardt's the "most qualified." And though he approves of Dean's stance on the Iraq war, he worries about his electability. No Democrat is likely to carry South Carolina against President Bush, he admits, but the nominee must be competitive in states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee - and he's "dubious" about Dean's chances.

Similarly, Leroy Davidson, who works for the local department of transportation, says he likes "the fact that [Dean]'s attacked Bush like he has" - but ultimately sees Gephardt and Clark as more "electable" candidates.

Interestingly, many voters also say they regard Gephardt as a "centrist" - a view that seems to stem more from his traditional, almost old-fashioned image than his positioning on issues. "He has old values but new ideas," says Representative Clyburn. "[He has] traditional ... notions that resonate with South Carolinians."

Of course, Clyburn's support could be the most important factor for Gephardt. Although many voters say they'll make up their own minds, a number say the endorsement has significant weight.

"With Clyburn's endorsement, I fully support him," says Michelle Logan-Owens, whose 6-month-old daughter, Storm, is chewing on a blue Gephardt sticker after the service at Jehovah Missionary Baptist Church in Sumter. "If he says Gephardt's the man, Gephardt's the man."

But many here seem barely aware of the election - indeed, many couldn't name a single candidate. Gephardt's events draw small crowds (the church is an exception). At a lunch stop at Big T's barbeque in Columbia, he eats a quick meal of barbeque and green beans largely for the benefit of cameras, while a handful of confused - if curious - voters look on. "I see him on TV," says Rhonda Goodwin, a convenience-store employee who says she doesn't know Gephardt's name or who else is running.

Repeatedly, voters say they're unhappy with the size of the field. "I'm waiting for the thin-out," says Darryl Brown, a driving instructor from Gadsden whose brother owns Big T's. "Once it gets down to three or four [candidates], I really will start paying attention."

Still, he identifies Dean as the front-runner, noting Gore's endorsement. While he acknowledges a cultural divide between the North and South, he believes a Northerner like Dean can win here: "He has good ideas," he says. "He just needs to get down and campaign more."

And as elsewhere in the country, many South Carolina Democrats like Dean's fiery message. At Claflin University, the state's oldest historically black university, Herb Alston calls Dean "a very exciting candidate. He's the person I'd like to see debate Bush." Like many African-Americans interviewed here, Mr. Alston, a former chair of the Orangeburg Democratic Party, isn't bothered by Dean's comments about appealing to voters with Confederate flag decals on their trucks. It seemed like "a slip of tongue," he says.

The point Dean was trying to make was a good one: He needs "all the votes," echoes county auditor Roger Cleckley. "The bottom line is, we must win in November."

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