The American-flag backdrop could hardly have been more enormous, or the crowds more attentive, at the Republican rally here in the hometown of legendary South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.
But the somber faces of George W. Bush's campaign aides showed just how high the stakes are in this state, which holds the next Republican primary tomorrow - perhaps the most exciting political duel since 1976, when Ronald Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination.
For the Texas governor's stumbling presidential quest, the task at hand couldn't be more stark: He needs to show he can beat his upstart rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, in a head-to-head match, and regain the confidence of the national Republican establishment.
"If Bush loses here in South Carolina, it could be the downfall of his campaign," says Brad Gomez, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Already, Governor Bush is no longer considered Mr. Inevitable, nor is he necessarily viewed as the Republican most likely to beat the Democrat in November. Bush also needs a win to show his donors that their largess has not been wasted.
Reports this week indicate the Texan has spent $50 million of his $70 million war chest, and is scrambling to raise more cash.
Senator McCain has $10 million on hand, and is raking in more via his Web site and traditional fund-raisers, after his stunning 19-point victory in the New Hampshire primary Feb. 1.
The stakes for McCain are nearly as high. A bad loss here could puncture the excitement of his insurgency and damage his chances in the flood of primaries ahead. But if he loses to Bush by just a point or two, that in itself would represent a victory. Until this month, the conservative South Carolina was solidly in Bush's column, and he trounced McCain in early opinion polls.
Now the polls show the race here in a virtual dead heat. Bush still beats McCain by 2 to 1 among registered Republicans, but loses big to the senator among registered independents and Democrats, who are allowed to vote here in the GOP primary. So the key, analysts say, is turnout.
The Gallup Poll reports that the likely primary electorate will be 60 percent Republican, 34 percent independent, and 6 percent Democrat. But if the non-Republican bloc begins to rise above 40 percent - a group that goes overwhelmingly for McCain - then Bush could be in trouble.
"If the election commissioners can't see their shadow on Saturday, because there are too many voters in line, then it's a McCain victory," says independent pollster John Zogby, whose latest poll puts Bush ahead by almost 4 points, a statistical dead heat.
South Carolina voters aren't accustomed to being such important gatekeepers in national presidential politics. Turnout is usually low. But many voters are taking their task seriously. At the event in Aiken, S.C., Wednesday night, where speakers included Bush and talk-show host Alan Keyes - a distant third in the three-man race - it wasn't hard to find those who were still undecided.
"Right now, I'm for McCain, but I'm disappointed he's not here tonight," says schoolteacher Mary Anne Brookshire, an independent. "He seems like a man of principle. I'm impressed that he was a POW." (McCain was speaking at Clemson University that evening, having appeared in Aiken a few days earlier.)
Ted Hansen, a registered Republican from Aiken, says he's on the fence but leaning toward Bush. "I think he's more of a consensus-builder," says Mr. Hansen. But the surprise announcement that Gary Bauer, a Christian-conservative activist who until recently was also running for the GOP nomination, has endorsed McCain is forcing Hansen to think again. "That's got me confused," he says.
McCain and Bush have spent the past two-plus weeks stealing each other's lines. Bush has tried to recast himself as "the reformer with results," and unveiled his own plan for campaign-finance reform. He says he put the plan together last summer, but it appeared to be a late effort to steal some of McCain's thunder as the maverick reformer.
McCain, in turn, is now touting his "winnability" in November, long considered Bush's strength. Some polls now show that McCain would beat Al Gore, if he were the Democratic nominee, while Bush would not.
The riskier strategy for McCain has been his decision to drop all advertisements critical of Bush, who continues to pound McCain on TV for comparing him with President Clinton on trustworthiness. Voters say they dislike negative campaigning, but history has shown that it works.
And South Carolina, after all, is the state that produced the late Lee Atwater, the legendarily tough GOP operative, who helped Bush's father win the presidency in 1988.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society