COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hillary Clinton once said that she was "in it to win it," but that may not be the case in South Carolina, where Democrats hold a presidential primary Saturday.
After participating in Monday night's debate in Myrtle Beach, the New York senator won't be back in the Palmetto State until Friday, campaigning instead in California, Arizona, New Mexico, New Jersey and New York, all of which vote Feb. 5.
Clinton was scheduled to attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march Monday morning to the state Capitol in Columbia, but her chartered flight arrived too late. Her principal rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, did march and received a rock-star reception from thousands of participants. Clinton spoke later at a statehouse rally, as did Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
"Maybe she's pulling a Romney, pulling out and going where there's more ducks to hunt," said Don Aiesi, a political scientist at Furman University in South Carolina, referring to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's late decision not to compete heavily in the state's Republican primary last week.
Doing so would allow Clinton to try to minimize South Carolina's importance by downplaying Obama's win as that of a black candidate in a heavily black state, Aiesi said. "That's the only thing I can say that would explain why she wouldn't go full-stop here, because this is the race of the week. She knows something's happening that's not to her advantage."
Alternatively, Clinton may be trying to manipulate expectations, especially in the news media, as her campaign did in New Hampshire and Nevada. If she loses South Carolina, but narrowly, after having left the state for three days this week, she may be able to spin the media into proclaiming that she did better than expected.
The Clinton campaign says she isn't giving up on South Carolina. Her chief surrogate, former President Bill Clinton, will be here Tuesday and probably other days this week. More than 1,000 female volunteers are coordinating phone banks and get-out-the-vote efforts. Clinton's campaign asserts that she has more endorsements than Obama does from the state legislature's black caucus.
"We are working to earn every vote and hope to do well in South Carolina," said Doug Hattaway, a Clinton spokesman. "Most of the campaigns have to balance what they're doing here with all the Feb. 5 states, which are right around the corner."
Nearly two dozen states vote Feb. 5, when more than 1,000 convention delegates will be chosen. South Carolina will choose 54 delegates.
Clinton had a double-digit lead in the polls in South Carolina as recently as November. As the campaign has grown closer, with race a recent major subtext, it appears that African-American voters are trending heavily to Obama, who now leads in many South Carolina polls.
That trend, combined with South Carolina's demographics, makes the state a tough sell for Clinton. Jesse Jackson beat Michael Dukakis, the eventual nominee, in the 1988 Democratic primary here. Conventional wisdom says that the state's Democratic primary voters are split 50-50 black and white, with Obama taking the black vote and Clinton and Edwards likely to split the white vote.
But Aiesi, who closely studies South Carolina politics, said he thought that white voters could be closer to 40 percent of the electorate.
"Where that 50 percent of white voters in the Democratic primary is must be some county out of the 37 that I don't know about," Aiesi said. "It's really going to be a black-dominated primary."