ORANGEBURG, S.C.—Democrats poured into South Carolina Thursday, prepping for the first debate of the 2008 presidential campaign and a chance to shake up the race.
The debate—nationally televised from 7 to 8:30 p.m. EDT on MSNBC—was to feature eight candidates and offer them the first chance of the young campaign to directly challenge rivals and differentiate themselves in the eyes of voters.
Two new polls showed the three top candidates dominating early in the competition in South Carolina.
In one survey by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for WIS Television, the local NBC affiliate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York had the support of 24 percent of likely voters, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had 23 percent, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina had 17 percent, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware had 3 percent, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico had 2 percent.
Other candidates—Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska—each had less than 1 percent.
In a survey by independent pollster John Zogby, Clinton had the support of 33 percent, Obama had 26 percent and Edwards had 21 percent, with the rest trailing far behind.
The Hart poll of 801 likely voters was conducted April 9-12 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The Zogby poll of 503 likely primary voters was conducted April 16-17 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 points.
The debate offered all the candidates an opportunity to play to their strengths, but could have exposed them to gaffes or unmasked their weaknesses.
An added challenge: The candidates have to appeal to a national audience, which includes the party's liberal base, as well as to more conservative South Carolina voters.
For example, they could be asked whether they agreed or disagreed with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., in his recent statement that the war in Iraq is "lost." Agreeing could bolster support among anti-war Democrats, but could alienate some Southern voters. The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., ran an editorial cartoon this week with Democrats raising a white flag of surrender.
"It would turn a lot of people off. We're more conservative here," said David Pascoe, an undecided Democrat from Orangeburg.
The candidates also prepared for a discussion about race, always an issue in a state where African-Americans cast 46 percent of the Democratic primary votes in 2004 and could make up a majority in 2008.
The candidates might be asked whether the Confederate flag should be removed from the grounds of the state capitol, where it has been flown since it was removed in 2000 from its more prominent spot atop the capitol dome.
The question of the flag came up anew when Steve Spurrier, the football coach at the University of South Carolina, recently said "that damn Confederate flag" should be removed from capitol grounds.
The NAACP has urged a boycott of the state over the flag, and the NCAA since 2001 has banned the state from hosting pre-scheduled tournaments such as basketball championships.
The candidates will remain in the state Friday to court voters at a state Democratic Party dinner in Columbia and an annual fish fry hosted by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., a member of the House of Representatives leadership and a larger-than-life figure in South Carolina politics.
It was Clyburn who drew the candidates to the debate at his alma mater, South Carolina State University, a historically black college midway between Columbia and Charleston.
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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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