January 28, 2004
Democrats launch 7-state reality check
By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
COLUMBIA, S.C. – As the Democratic presidential candidates fan out from New Hampshire, their battle for the party's nomination enters a critical week and a more national phase.
It starts in seven states, stretching from South Carolina to Arizona, that hold primaries or caucuses Tuesday.
The varied demographic territory – each has significant numbers of African-American, Hispanic and elderly voters – will test the front-runner status that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has earned with decisive wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.
It will also determine the staying power of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the other candidates as the task of amassing enough national convention delegates to secure the nomination begins in earnest.
The contests – they also include Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Delaware and North Dakota – "begin the transfer from the Iowa and New Hampshire phenomenon," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "You start going into the hard reality of the mathematics of delegate count. You've got to rack up some delegates."
A total of 269 delegates will be apportioned based on Tuesday's voting, with 2,159 needed to clinch the nomination. Four days later, Michigan holds its primary with 128 delegates at stake.
The candidates will be forced to make decisions about where to spend their time and money. All of the states stake a claim of importance either in terms of the number of delegates they offer or what they say about a candidate's regional appeal.
"Any candidate who wins at least one state will have some bragging rights," said Larry Sabato, a political expert at the University of Virginia. "Depending on which state a candidate wins, he can claim viability in the South, the West, the Midwest, among Hispanics – fill in the blank."
Chris Lehane, an adviser to retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, said: "If you take these states in composite, they do very much reflect the nation."
The campaigning for Tuesday kicks off a larger, five-week marathon of primaries and caucuses that will culminate March 2 in a 10-state vote that includes California.
After that, primaries in states such as Illinois, which votes on March 16, may be little more than mopping-up operations.
Of the seven states that vote Tuesday, South Carolina has been getting the most media attention. It holds the first contest in the South and has the largest proportion of black voters of the seven states.
Analysts say blacks might account for up to half of the Democratic turnout in South Carolina next week.
But some of the state's thunder was stolen with Gephardt's exit from the field, which suddenly put his home state in play. Missouri offers 74 delegates – next week's biggest prize – and traditionally is a swing state in presidential elections.
Arizona, which has received little attention, has 55 delegates and a large Hispanic population. South Carolina will award 45 Democratic delegates but is likely to go Republican in the general election.
"Whoever wins (Missouri) takes to the rest of the Democratic electorate a very powerful argument," said John Kenneth White, a political scien tist at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
"South Carolina is in a league of its own because it is in the South and has a large black population. If a candidate wins both of those, that candidate is likely to be the nominee. If it's a split decision, it's likely to go on."
Kerry formally launched his campaign in South Carolina in September, but he largely abandoned the state after his fortunes waned and focused his energy on Iowa and New Hampshire. Kerry is heading to Missouri for his first post-New Hampshire stop.
Most of the candidates have scrambled to get a foothold in Missouri. Democratic officials and political observers in the state say Dean has the largest base of volunteers, organized mainly through the Internet.
They were conducting house parties and canvassing operations even when Gephardt was in the race. But both Kerry and Sen. John Edwards have picked up key campaign aides from Gephardt.
South Carolina is particularly crucial to Edwards, who is from neighboring North Carolina. Edwards has tried to build a favorite-son aura in the Palmetto State, noting he was born of humble roots in the textile mill town of Seneca, S.C.
For Edwards, appealing to Southern voters is a prime selling point to Democratic audiences, and it could be badly tarnished if he doesn't win South Carolina.
"It could be make or break for him," said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who is considered one of the most influential politicians in the state, particularly among black voters.
Clyburn's endorsement has been eagerly sought by all of the candidates since his one-time favorite, Gephardt, left the race. One of Clyburn's top aides has signed on with Edwards.
But Edwards is wary of being tagged a regional candidate, and aides say he intends to be competitive in other states voting Tuesday, including Oklahoma, New Mexico and Missouri.
Other candidates have invested a lot of time and resources in South Carolina.
Clark has played on the state's military tradition and large number of veterans, and civil rights activist Al Sharpton hopes to draw substantial black support.
None of the candidates appears to be an overwhelming favorite in any of the states, though Democratic officials say Kerry's win in Iowa gave him a bounce and last night's victory in New Hampshire gives him significant momentum.
"It's still wide open," said Paul Hegarty, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party.
A recent poll by The Arizona Republic showed Kerry with a slight lead over Clark in Arizona, 19 percent to 17 percent. Dean, knocked from his front-runner position by Kerry, was drawing 14 percent. About a third of Arizonans were undecided.
Edwards gained strength in South Carolina with his surprise second-place finish in Iowa and was leading there in a recent poll.
"There were a lot of voters, black and white, who wanted to support Edwards but were waiting for him to prove his viability. I think that happened," said one South Carolina Democratic official, who is not aligned with a campaign.
As Dean struggles to regain his footing against Kerry's surge, some observers believe the Southwest, particularly New Mexico, may be fertile ground for him.
New Mexico has a concentration of high-tech workers and Green Party voters, both of whom Dean has courted, political analyst Sabato said.
"It is absolutely Dean's best shot. If he loses New Mexico, I think he can pack it in," Sabato said.
Meanwhile, the campaign of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., is in peril after his poor showing in New Hampshire after he skipped Iowa. He must come through with a win in one or more of the states, particularly a moderate-to-conservative bastion like Oklahoma, to remain in the race, experts say.
"He has staked out his territory in Oklahoma," said White of Catholic University.
Copley News Service correspondent Otto Kreisher contributed to this report from New Hampshire.