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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South Carolina Swarms with Democratic Hopefuls

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South Carolina Swarms with Democratic Hopefuls

South Carolina Swarms with Democratic Hopefuls

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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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