With less than two weeks to go before so-called "Super Tuesday," when 23 states will hold primaries or caucuses for one or both major parties, Saturday's Democratic primary in South Carolina has gotten somewhat overshadowed.
But in the tightest presidential-nomination race in decades, where every delegate counts — well, not counting the Democratic ones in Florida and Michigan, that is — and a clear front-runner might not emerge until the party's convention in Denver in August, the 54 Democratic delegates up for grabs in South Carolina are more important than ever.
Here's what's at stake for the three remaining major candidates:
Good news: Obama is solidly leading in most of the polls in advance of the first Democratic contest in the South, in some by as much as 10 points. Black voters represent more than 50 percent of the state's registered Democrats, and though Obama has resisted making race an issue in the contest, he has begun a more direct outreach to black voters that could help him notch another victory. His win in Iowa proved he could draw a significant amount of white voters as well, so he seems well-positioned to finally put a rest to any questions of his broad appeal.
Bad news: Obama has not won a contest since taking the Iowa caucus on January 3. His appeal to black voters could hit two roadblocks: the fact that former Senator John Edwards won here in 2004 and the continuing popularity of Bill Clinton in the region. Though the allegations are old, recent questions raised by rival Senator Hillary Clinton over Obama's 120-plus "present" votes while in the Illinois State Senate and his ties to indicted Chicago embezzler Tony Rezko have garnered lots of headlines this week as voters in the state make their final decisions.
Good news: See above. Former Arkansas governor and honorary "first black president" Bill Clinton remains popular in SC, where he won the primary in 1992 and has been campaigning hard for his wife over the past few days. Plus, she's on a roll, having won New Hampshire, Nevada and Michigan, although Democratic delegates in the latter state won't count after being decertified by the Democratic National Committee. Clinton has tried to overcome a now-settled but nasty battle over what the Obama campaign called her racially loaded comments about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in civil-rights legislation.
Bad news: Obama has slammed Clinton for not spending enough time in SC in favor of visiting a couple of Super Tuesday states while sending Bill Clinton to do her campaigning. John Edwards also criticized her earlier this week for being absent the state after a contentious CNN Democratic debate on Monday. And though she won last week's Nevada caucus, Clinton only pulled in 20 percent of the black vote, and since then Bill Clinton has been taking more heat for his sometimes-biting jabs at Obama. National Public Radio news analyst Daniel Schorr suggested in a commentary on Wednesday that the former president's smash-mouth campaigning is, well, not very presidential, and that it may "boomerang" against candidate Clinton and hurt her campaign.
Good news: The former North Carolina senator — and native son of South Carolina — is in his element in the South, especially in the state where he won his only 2004 primary. He was seen as the levelheaded one during the Monday debate, rising above Obama and Clinton's name-calling and sniping, and vowing to focus on the real problems facing voters and represent the "grown-up" wing of the party. Some pundits have said his measured tone might buoy his chances and could cut into the Clinton vote if voters sour on the increasingly negative tone of her campaign. A win could pump life into a campaign that has been largely overshadowed by the Clinton/Obama show.
Bad news: Despite Edwards' oft-repeated stump story about his father's toil as a millworker in the Palmetto State, he's polling third in his own backyard and doesn't appear to have a shot at winning. Even with the aforementioned win in 2004 and rhetoric about the hardships facing small-town and rural America amid recent bad economic news, Edwards trails in a state with the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation, at 6.6 percent. The multimillionaire ex-lawyer has yet to notch a caucus or primary win, and his decision to accept federal matching funds will limit the amount of money he can raise through the rest of the cycle, putting him at a huge disadvantage to the Obama/Clinton cash machines. Another loss could result in even those meager donations drying up. And, finally, his history-battling dilemma was perhaps crystallized in a line Obama used in the debate Monday night. He said the race is one where "you've got an African-American, and a woman and ... John."