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Democratic presidential candidates debate Thursday night

COLUMBIA, S.C.—Eight candidates for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination face off in their first debate Thursday in South Carolina, a confrontation that could shake up an early race driven so far by occasional skirmishes among proxies or press releases but not yet by the candidates themselves.

The debate will be moderated by NBC anchorman Brian Williams and televised nationally (7 p.m.—8:30 p.m. EDT) on MSNBC.

The candidates will be appealing both to a national audience as well as to voters in South Carolina, which will hold the first primary in the South next January.

The candidates appearing at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., will be Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, and former Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina and Mike Gravel of Alaska.

"This will be the first chance for them to have some interaction," said Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "Everyone's looking for a chance to distinguish themselves."

Among things to watch for:

_Style. Clinton aides have criticized Obama, seen as her biggest rival. Will she go after him? Obama vows a more civil politics; will he counterpunch if hit?

_Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says the war is "lost." Watch to see if any candidates agree. That would please parts of their base but risk offending more conservative voters in South Carolina and elsewhere.

_Health care. They all propose covering the uninsured. Watch for explanations of how they would pay for it.

_Race. University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier rekindled an old state controversy recently, saying "that damn Confederate flag" should be removed from the state capitol grounds. Which candidate is most vocal in agreeing?

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ELECTION 2008

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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