Democrats Prep for South Carolina Debate On Thursday, the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination will gather in Orangeburg, S.C., for their first debate of the season. While many of them have appeared on the same stage before, Thursday's event is the first full-fledged debate, where candidates presumably will be able to respond to one another.
NPR logo Democrats Prep for South Carolina Debate

Democrats Prep for South Carolina Debate

His wins in Iowa and New Hampshire boosted John Kerry to a strong second-place finish in the 2004 South Carolina primary. hide caption

toggle caption

California Democrat Juanita Millender-McDonald, in Congress since 1996, died Sunday at the age of 68. hide caption

toggle caption

Eleven years ago today, Maryland's Elijah Cummings succeeds Kweisi Mfume in Congress. hide caption

toggle caption

On Thursday, the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination will gather in Orangeburg, S.C., for their first debate of the season. While many of them have appeared on the same stage before — at the DNC in Washington back in early February, a labor forum in Carson City, Nev., 19 days later, a health care forum the following month in Las Vegas — Thursday's event is the first full-fledged debate, where candidates presumably will be able to respond to one another.

Before I go on, let me give you a list of the candidates who are scheduled to appear. They are: Sen. Joe Biden (DE), Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY), Sen. Chris Dodd (CT), former Sen. John Edwards (NC), former Sen. Mike Gravel (AK), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH), Sen. Barack Obama (IL), and Gov. Bill Richardson (NM).

Now here's a list of the candidates you will hear most about in the post-debate write-ups: Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY) and Sen. Barack Obama (IL). Maybe, if there's room, former Sen. John Edwards (NC). But no more.

And that's what these so-called "lesser" candidates face as they approach Thursday's debate, broadcast nationally by MSNBC. Some will question whether anything that happens will resonate with voters around the country. But a poor (or widely criticized) showing could have legs in the state, the second state to hold a primary in 2008. We know that a bad debate review will certainly spread via the cable TV punditry.

For the "top three" Democrats, much is at stake. Clinton, as she does nationally, holds a lead in South Carolina. What this means nine months in advance of the Jan. 29 primary is, um, debatable. But those trying to find chinks in the Hillary armor will be watching her performance very closely.

Her main rival seems at this point to be Obama, who hopes to capitalize with a strong showing among the large black electorate in the state, thought to approach 50 percent of the Democratic primary total. Like Clinton, Obama has yet to make many visits to the state, but this week will give him an opportunity to make some new contacts. One key black leader who is unlikely to commit early is Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the House majority whip and the highest-ranking African American in Congress. In 2004, Clyburn endorsed then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO), who was gone from the race before the campaign ever reached South Carolina.

Perhaps the candidate with the most to lose is Edwards, who was born in the state and whose victory in the 2004 primary was his only win that year. A third-place finish would be a disaster. But like with the other candidates, he's got to do something in Iowa and New Hampshire if voters here are going to view him as a potential nominee. (Speaking of the silliness of citing polling data at this point, it should be remembered that nine months before the 2004 primary — a time comparable to right now — Edwards was polling around 7 percent.)

Edwards has been in the state far more times than Clinton and Obama combined — but less so than either Biden or Dodd. Both senators are polling in single digits. Biden is said to have the backing of some of the key players who ran former Sen. Ernest Hollings' (D-SC) political operation. Richardson, who is making a big effort in the early state of Nevada, also intends to compete in S.C. There is no evidence at this point of any activity on behalf of Kucinich or Gravel.

Full report on the debate in next week's column.

Details: Debate is 90 minutes (starting at 7 p.m. EDT). It takes place on the campus of South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on Thursday. The moderator is NBC's Brian Williams.

The Republicans debate in the state on May 15, at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Sponsored by the Fox News Channel, the debate will be moderated by Fox's Brit Hume.

And while Brian and Brit hold court for the next couple of weeks, here's some other court stuff to ponder:

Q: The Supreme Court decision on partial-birth abortion has been attributed to Samuel Alito replacing Sandra Day O'Connor on the court. What other switches on the court would you say were especially noteworthy ideologically? — Amy Arnold, Chicago, Ill.

A: One clear example of a seat moving from right to left came in 1967, when President Johnson named Thurgood Marshall to succeed the retiring Tom Clark, a conservative. Another shift in that direction came in 1993, when President Clinton replaced the retiring Byron White (a Roe v. Wade dissenter) with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But two other changes went the other way. The first President Bush named Clarence Thomas to succeed Marshall in 1991, a major shift to the right. Similarly, when President Nixon named Warren Burger to replace Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1969, it was good news for conservatives.

Q: Supreme Court justices are sometimes designated as occupants of the "Holmes" seat or the "Brandeis" seat. What happens when there are two vacancies to be filled? I am thinking of the Rehnquist/Powell nominations in 1971. Does the president designate the vacancy he is proposing to fill in the instrument of the nomination? – Judge Courtenay Hall, Ballston Spa, N.Y.

A: When President Nixon announced the nominations of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell on Oct. 21, 1971, he specifically designated the justices they would succeed: Powell for the late Hugo Black, and Rehnquist for John Marshall Harlan. Earlier, in 1968, President Johnson named Associate Justice Abe Fortas to succeed retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren, and Appeals Court Judge Homer Thornberry to replace Fortas. Both nominations came on the same day. But when Fortas withdrew his nomination in the wake of a filibuster, there was no vacancy for Thornberry to fill as well.

One time the plans went awry came when Sandra Day O'Connor announced her resignation in July 2005. Just over two weeks later, President Bush announced John Roberts as her successor. But when Chief Justice Rehnquist died on Sept. 3, Bush changed course and nominated Roberts to succeed Rehnquist.

But there was still the O'Connor seat to fill. After having his choice of Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, blow up in his face, Bush then named Samuel Alito.

Q: Besides Sandra Day O'Connor, are there any other former Supreme Court justices still alive? – Tim Gardner, Albuquerque, N.M.

A: No.

LITTLE DID HE KNOW: If you missed the opportunity to watch comedian Rich Little's performance at Saturday's White House Correspondents Association dinner, you missed an amazing and exciting show. You have no idea how well Little's impersonations of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Johnny Carson went over with the hundreds of journalists. Just the other day, one of them said to me, "I sure hope Rich Little does his Reagan, Carter, Nixon and Carson impressions." As one who sat in the audience, my only regret was that I found myself wishing Little would have been even more topical, with jokes about Billy Sol Estes, Quemoy & Matsu, and Ezra Taft Benson.


My God, it was one of the worst performances I had ever seen in my life. I know, I know, there was considerable discomfort last year during comedian Stephen Colbert's routine, which I thought was mean-spirited and not especially funny. But as I found myself stunned listening to Little's stale jokes on Saturday, I wondered which was worse. Could they not have gotten Joey Bishop or Norm Crosby? Even the Elving-Rudin podcast would have been funnier. Well, maybe.

Del Merritt of Damariscotta, Me., had fond memories of Little: "I remember listening to him on 8-track as a teen during the post-Watergate days. At the time I didn't think he was holding back too many punches. Perhaps he grew up in a kinder, gentler time, when verbal jabs didn't each have to be KOs in order to be effective?"

But to Michael Rebain of Washington, D.C., that was not the point: "My issue with the Colbert/Little appearance is more about the entire concept of these dinners. There are too many questions about the cozy relationship between the media and government, and these events really emphasize it."

And here's a contradiction that no one has yet to point out. When he was introduced at the dinner, President Bush said that because of the tragic events at Virginia Tech, he would not try to be funny. That was understandable, and everyone accepted it. But then how do you explain what Bush said on April 24? Speaking of the testimony Alberto Gonzales gave to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, the president said, "The Attorney General went up and gave a very candid assessment, and answered every question he could possibly answer, honestly answer, in a way that increased my confidence in his ability to do the job."

And to think he said he wasn't going to be funny!

IN MEMORIAM: Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA 37) died April 22 of cancer. She was 68 years old and had served in Congress since winning a special election in March of 1996, following the resignation of scandal-plagued Walter Tucker (D). Millender-McDonald was chair of the House Administration Committee, the first African-American woman to do so.

Also passing from the scene this week was author and journalist David Halberstam, who died in a California automobile accident. Halberstam, who was 73, was a brilliant writer whose list of books included at least two with tragic endings: The Best and the Brightest, about the ill-fated decision to wage war in Vietnam, and October 1964, which had the St. Louis Cardinals beating the New York Yankees in the '64 World Series.

And lest we forget Boris Yeltsin, the president of post-Soviet Russia, who merits mention in this column for his visit to Kansas in the early 1990s that produced these buttons:

Boris Yeltsin Buttons

Early Show This Week: The "Political Junkie" segment can be heard on Talk of the Nation, NPR's call-in show, every Wednesday at 2:40 p.m. But this week's segment — with a lot to say — begins at 2:06 pm and runs for a half-hour. If the online column leaves you craving more, then you should tune in to TOTN each Wednesday for your fix! And if your local NPR station doesn't carry TOTN, you can still hear it on the Web. This week: McCain announces, Rich Little bombs, and a preview of the South Carolina debate with Aaron Gould Sheinin, political reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia.

It's All Politics: Which just so happens is the name of our weekly podcast, and which can be found at This week's taping will take place a day earlier than usual, on Wednesday, to allow me enough time to head for South Carolina for the debate. Why not join Mark Schwager of East Greenwich, R.I., who writes, "This is my favorite podcast of all. I listened to the Florida beach 'Spring Break' bit three times. Keep rolling!"

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This day in political history: Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, is sworn in as a new member of the House, succeeding Kweisi Mfume (D), who resigned in February to become president of the NAACP (April 25, 1996).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: