South Carolina Swarms with Democratic Hopefuls

A day after the first major debate of the 2008 campaign, Democratic presidential candidates press the flesh in South Carolina. The annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner is Friday night, followed by a fish fry hosted by Rep. James Clyburn.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Democratic presidential race is in high gear in South Carolina today. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, former Senator John Edwards, among others are campaigning in the state and they all converge at a certain fish fry. Not just any fish fry this one's hosted by Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.

He is the House Democratic whip that makes him the third-most powerful person in the House and he is the ranking African-American. Congressman Clyburn is sure to be an influential man in the state's early primary. Last night at South Carolina State University, the Democrats held their first formal televised debate and today they're holding independently town meetings in different parts of South Carolina.

NPR's political correspondent Mara Liasson is in Greenville, South Carolina, and joins us. Welcome, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hello, Robert.

SIEGEL: You spent some of today at a Hillary Clinton event. Tell us about that and Mrs. Clinton's standing in South Carolina right about now.

LIASSON: Well, in the polls, Mrs. Clinton is running first but of course polls at this early stage mean absolutely nothing, at least we keep telling ourselves that as we obsess over them. But she got an incredibly warm reception at this town meeting. One man stood up and said: We in South Carolina love you and your husband, South Carolina needs jobs and you are the answer besides God.

So, she got a very warm reception. She also reprised some of what she clearly considers to be her greatest hits from last night's debate especially the answer she gave to the question of what she would do if two American cities were hit by al-Qaeda, and it was a question that she feels showcases her ability to be commander in chief.

She said as a president I would retaliate, as swiftly and as prudent, you know, it is the job of the president to protect and defend us, and she clearly is running even in this primary season with the general election campaign in mind.

SIEGEL: Now, about half of South Carolina's Democratic voters are black. What does that mean for Barack Obama and what is he doing in the state today?

LIASSON: Well, I think what it means is this is going to be a state where he's expecting to do very well. His campaign advisers say flatly, we are going to win South Carolina, and every independent observer I've talked to say that he is going to do very well here. He's working hard here. I think this is a must win state for him.

South Carolina traditionally has not been a launching pad. It is the fourth of the early primary and caucus state that comes after Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire, but it is a validator. If you can win one of the earlier states and win in South Carolina, you're off to a pretty good start.

But it's also going to be a big test for Barack Obama as to how he can excite and energize African-American voters, how he can boost a black turnout here. So he is campaigning hard here and he's in Charleston today holding another town meeting.

SIEGEL: Well, tell us about Congressman Clyburn's fish fry.

LIASSON: Congressman Clyburn's fish fry is the political event of the year. Every four years, he holds this fish fry on the same night of the Democratic State Party's Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, and it's a free event. It's for people who can't afford the $100 price of the JJ Dinner.

They get to go to a parking garage in Columbia where they have one menu item -and one menu item only - and that is fried whiting on wonder bread with ketchup and mustard and lots of drinks and great music, and it is an absolute required stop for every presidential candidate.

They're going to meet people but also to pay homage to Jim Clyburn, who's a very important man in this state, and everyone will be there and it's a big, loud, noisy, fun event.

SIEGEL: Now, we should just add the proviso here that while South Carolina will be the only one of those four early states in the presidential process with a significant African-American population. South Carolina is a state which in general elections has not gone for a Democrat in eons.

LIASSON: That's absolutely correct, although there are many Southern white Democratic office holders that I have talked to who think that having Barack Obama on the ticket at least in 2008 might help them boost African-American turnout. Not necessarily have the states go to the Democratic ticket but will certainly help down-ballot a Democratic candidate. This is not a general election state the Democrats has any hope of winning.

SIEGEL: NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

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Civility, a Bit of Wit on Display as Democrats Debate

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

Cordiality, not fireworks, reigned Thursday evening between ostensible frontrunners Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. Stan Honda/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/Getty Images
Sen. Joseph Biden

Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware provided the night's lightest moment with his response to a question about whether he could keep his infamous verbosity in check on the world stage: "Yes" was his one-word response. Stan Honda/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/Getty Images

The eight Democrats who want to be their party's presidential nominee appeared on stage at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on Thursday evening for their first debate in the 2008 race.

While the names of Sens. Hillary Clinton (NY) and Barack Obama (IL) and former Sen. John Edwards (NC) are quite familiar to most Americans, those of Sens. Joe Biden (DE), Chris Dodd (CT) and Bill Richardson (NM), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) and former Sen. Mike Gravel (AK) are not. The South Carolina debate, broadcast nationally by MSNBC, gave the candidates an opportunity to introduce themselves to that vast majority of voters who have not yet decided which candidate to back.

Not surprisingly, Iraq was the most discussed topic; voters say it is the No. 1 issue, and it was credited with giving Democrats their majorities in both the House and Senate in last year's elections.

Iraq is also what usually unites the Democratic candidates: All oppose the war there, all oppose the surge, and all oppose President Bush's stated desire to veto the spending bill passed by Congress that includes a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Nonetheless, divisions among the candidates could be seen. One long-existing fault line divides those who voted to authorize the war in 2002 – including Clinton, Edwards, Biden and Dodd – from those who did not.

Kucinich – who made opposition to the conflict the key issue in his 2004 presidential bid – voted no. Obama, who was not yet in the Senate but a member of the Illinois state legislature, spoke out against the war from the start.

Edwards has said his vote was a mistake, and he again apologized for it. But in what some see as an ongoing snipe at Clinton, Edwards insists that those who voted yes should concede the error of their ways.

"Sen. Clinton," Edwards said in Thursday's debate, "and anyone else who voted for the war, has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they've voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote. If they believe they didn't, I think it's important to be straightforward and honest. Because I think one of the things we desperately need in our next president is someone who can restore the trust bond between the American people and the president of the United States."

Clinton has long been a target of anti-war protesters because of her refusal to apologize for her vote. On Thursday, she again acknowledged that the vote was wrong.

"I take responsibility for my vote," Clinton said. "Obviously, I did as good a job as I could at the time. It was a sincere vote based on the information available to me. And I've said many times that, if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way."

Kucinich approached the issue another way. He said it is "inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war and, yet, you continue to fund the war. Because every time you vote to fund the war, you're reauthorizing the war all over again."

The award for angriest candidate went to Gravel, the former two-term senator from Alaska, who has mostly faded from the scene since his 1980 defeat for re-election. Emulating the Howard Beal character in the movie Network, Gravel gave a scathing assessment of his fellow Democrats, at one point saying their actions regarding Iraq and their rhetoric involving Iran "frighten" him.

Prior to the debate, much of the anticipation centered on how Clinton and Obama, the ostensible frontrunners for the nomination, would approach one another. But the two took a conciliatory and, at times, complimentary approach with each other.

At points, they referred to each other by their first names, in approving tones. Referring to Obama's plan for Iraq, Clinton said: "I think that what Barack said is right.'' Obama, in turn, alluded to previous comments from "Hillary" in regards to voters' "hunger for change."

Some of the more interesting moments came when NBC's Brian Williams, the debate's moderator, addressed embarrassing or difficult moments for the candidates. Obama was reminded of his ties to a donor accused of having questionable ethics. Obama said his campaign has thousands of donors and he has denounced that particular one.

Edwards was asked about the seeming contradiction between his campaign's focus on poverty and the "two Americas," and the $400 haircuts he billed to the campaign. Edwards said he had made a mistake, and he readily agreed that he is privileged. But, in repeating a theme from his 2004 presidential bid, Edwards reminded the audience that his father worked in a mill all of his life, and that he did not grow up with money.

"The reason I'm running for president," Edwards said, "is so that everybody in this country can have the same kind of chances I've had."

Williams wanted to know why Richardson was "one of the last" to call for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Richardson acknowledged that it was because Gonzales, like Richardson, is Hispanic, and he wanted to give the attorney general a chance. In another part of the debate, Richardson had to explain why he seems to be the favorite candidate of the National Rifle Association, and whether that comes at an awkward time, given the massacre at Virginia Tech. Richardson said that, as someone who hails from the West, gun rights and the Second Amendment are very important.

Dodd, facing Williams' charge that he has been "rather unabashed" about accepting money from lobbyists, defended his long career in Congress as one devoted to "public service."

The lightest moment came when Williams spoke to Biden. Mentioning that Biden has been accused of "uncontrolled verbosity," the newsman asked him whether he could convince voters that he would have the "discipline" to keep from yakking all the time.

"Yes" was Biden's one-word response.

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