Tonight's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina provides the first nationwide platform for the Democratic candidates to sell their candidacies to voters. In addition to being broadcast by MSNBC, it will be carried by all local NBC affiliates in South Carolina, one of the four early Primary or Caucus States. Candidates will need to appeal not only to Democrats nationally, but will also need to pay special attention to the still maturing ground of South Carolina Presidential Primary voters.
The Palmetto State was chosen for an early Primary position largely because of a significant presence of African American voters, which was previously lacking in the early contests. South Carolina's Primary is the best opportunity for this largely Democratic constituency to influence the nomination contest between the most diverse field of candidates ever fielded by the Democratic Party. African American voters are expected to comprise 50-55% of the Primary voters and could very well choose the winner.
When the Debate kicks off at 7pm on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college, there will be a lot on the line. The first thing that each campaign will strive to do is to prevent a major gaffe. At such an early stage, it could be a deadly blow to any of the campaigns, particularly those of the lower tier.
John Edwards won the South Carolina Democratic Primary in 2004. Then, it was largely written off by the other candidates, so it is an unknown factor how he will play there in 2008. As a native South Carolinian and former Senator from North Carolina, he does have somewhat of a home court advantage. During the debate, the populist themes that he has been pitching to audiences across the nation should be well received by both his South Carolina audience and national Democrats. His work on poverty is a defining issue of his campaign and one that many Democrats will feel is returning to the mission of their Party. He is also a leading voice among the contenders in opposing the Iraq War, which he should emphasize as soon as possible so he can capture the anti-war Primary voters who will only support a viable candidate. His biggest challenge will be to convince those same voters that he is indeed a viable candidate. With Clinton and Obama receiving the lion's share of the media coverage, he will need to muster all of his abilities to speak to the average person and inspire them to believe in his campaign.
Hillary Clinton is as well known in South Carolina as she is anywhere else. That carries the same benefits and challenges as it does nationwide. People trust her experience and judgment. She is a rock star and draws large crowds. In spite of all that, she doesn't seem to connect on an individual level with voters in the same manner as some of the other candidates. After more than six years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Democratic voters will be looking for someone who inspires them to believe there is something better. While they remember fondly the days of the Clinton Presidency of the 1990's, it does not translate into an immediate belief that she carries the same magic of her husband. Hillary will undoubtedly remain firmly on her well vetted message and deliver her points with poise and confidence. Her biggest challenge will be to add some "warm fuzzy factor" to how voters perceive her and to convince them that she hasn't been living in a bubble since 1992. If she can win in the South Carolina Primary, it could very well cement her race for the nomination. In a State where John Edwards and Barack Obama would presumably have major advantages, this could be where Hillary puts them away.
Barack Obama is the least experienced candidate in the Presidential campaign, yet has attracted a large and diverse national following. His transformational style of speaking has inspired many people and fueled a stronger than expected fundraising operation. He speaks eloquently and is well polished. Given the large African American population in South Carolina, he may come into the State's Primary with the best advantage of all of the candidates. However, he cannot count on that support to gravitate to him simply because of his historic candidacy. African American voters are complex people and have a long history of being disappointed. Obama will have to work to earn their respect and support. The average African American voter in South Carolina will not share his experience of being a Harvard graduate and successful big city lawyer. He will have to tell a compelling personal story to make this an asset rather than a quality that separates him from voters who do not share his recent experiences. Given his lack of experience under such scrutiny, I believe he is at greater risk of making a mistake than Edwards or Clinton. Part of his challenge will be to maintain his transformational style of speaking while fielding a wide range of questions during the debate. Should he be able to walk the fine line between the two and not lose his golden touch, he could come out as the winner.
Bill Richardson is arguably the most experienced candidate on the Democratic side of the Presidential race. Yet, he is largely unknown to a national audience as well as South Carolina voters. Richardson will need to sell his wide-ranging experience in elected and appointed office and make it relevant to the average voter. To do this, he will need to speak with authority on a wide range of issues and stake out positions that set him apart from the other candidates. This will help him overcome his biggest challenge in this debate: to make the jump to a top-tier candidate. He's got the ability to do that, but it remains to be seen if he will.
The other candidates participating in the debate all share the same goals. They all need to increase name identification and distinguish themselves from the rest of the lower-tier candidates. This will be a difficult challenge, given the number of candidates and the amount of attention that will be given to the top-tier competition.
There always remains the chance that somebody will score a major one-liner that will earn a massive amount of free media. Those are the moments that propel an unknown into a competitive race or cement front-runner status. Those moments are also what keep the attention of millions focused on every step of a Presidential race. We may witness a landscape changing moment tonight that will go down in history. Maybe not. Either way, it proves to be an exciting night for the Democratic Presidential Campaign and an opportunity to see the candidates at their best.