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RAY SUAREZ: South Carolina is not the richest prize in tomorrow’s balloting, but it is the first contest in the South … and the first to involve large numbers of black voters, a critical Democratic constituency in November.
HOST: Good morning again, we have been on the phone lines this morning, lots of folk ready to call in, participating in our straw poll.
CALLER: I’m going to vote for Al Sharpton.
HOST: You are going to vote for Al Sharpton. Why?
CALLER: Because I heard him speak last week at the township and on TV. And it just changed my mind. I was voting for Clark and Edwards at first.
CALLER: I really still haven’t made up my mind yet, I’m going to do some more searching and looking for responses to certain issues, where the candidates stand.
RAY SUAREZ: This primary, in a state won handily by President Bush in 2000, means different things to different men. For John Edwards, it’s a critical test of Southern strength. He’s said he must win here. For John Kerry, it’s a chance to end the Edwards challenge early.
For Al Sharpton, it’s his first appeal to a large black electorate. After spending heavily in time and money in New Hampshire, Wesley Clark also wants to show his vote-getting potential in a Southern state with large numbers of military families. Howard Dean has focused his attention on other Tuesday races, while fielding a large volunteer operation here. Dennis Kucinich and Joe Lieberman came for the one major debate, then spent little time here as the polling day approached.
SPOKESMAN: It is my privilege to introduce South Carolina’s band, Hootie and the Blowfish. (Cheers and applause)
RAY SUAREZ: John Edwards spent the largest share of the week since New Hampshire crisscrossing South Carolina. He rarely misses an opportunity to remind voters of a little personal history.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I grew up having been born in South Carolina, moving to North Carolina when I was young. I grew up in the South in the ’50s and ’60s, so I have seen, like many of you, the ugly face of segregation and discrimination.
RAY SUAREZ: In the battle of the biographies, John Kerry also plays to a South Carolina strength: The large numbers of retired veterans who live here and the state’s traditional admiration for the military.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: From the time I came back from Vietnam, having fought in a war that saw more African Americans and Latinos serving on the front lines and becoming the casualties and suffering when they came back, I learned firsthand how tough it can be in America with respect to getting rights.
FORMER SEN. MAX CLELAND, (D) Georgia: Been there, done that, got a few holes in the T-shirt.
RAY SUAREZ: Fellow Vietnam vet and the former U.S. senator from next-door Georgia, Max Cleland has been a prominent supporter here, and a Kerry proxy with veterans’ organizations, while the Massachusetts senator has flown off to other primary states. Veterans packed a Kerry phone bank just before the Super Bowl kickoff, calling their comrades, trying to boost turnout Tuesday.
MAN ON PHONE: I would suggest that you really give it some serious consideration because you’re a veteran. We need a brother veteran in office to handle those situations.
RAY SUAREZ: South Carolina isn’t used to all this attention. It doesn’t always hold a presidential primary because the parties have to pay for them. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Don Fowler, who lives here in South Carolina, said seven campaigns — spending money, organizing volunteers and bringing along the national media — is a great tool for rebuilding the Democratic Party here. It hasn’t won a presidential race since 1976.
DON FOWLER: This process, I am certain, has created more goodwill for the Democratic Party than we’ve had in this state in a long time, so there will be a continued residual goodwill that will help the party through the summer and in through the fall months. We as a party have to take advantage of that residual goodwill and bid on it and nurture it.
RAY SUAREZ: Whoever ends up becoming the Democratic nominee can take away important lessons for the fall from South Carolina. Those who know the state intimately, sound a common set of themes when asked what’s important here. Dan Carter is a University of South Carolina historian.
DAN CARTER: For a minority of South Carolinians, just as for a minority of Americans, these have been the golden years. But for a growing number of both white and black South Carolinians, the last four — three years, certainly, haven’t been golden years. And I think even more than other parts of the country they’re feeling the stress of job dislocation, and the fear that it’s going to stretch even further than it has.
RAY SUAREZ: Rick Wade is a local political consultant and broadcaster.
RICK WADE: I think value — it does factor into a person’s decision, their actions and their initiatives. So that is extremely important. Again, and I think in South Carolina this is part of the Bible belt, and it’s a part of our culture. And we believe in that, I think we’re looking at candidates who can articulate, but yes, articulate, you know, the issues as well, jobs, health care, the same issues that matter across America matter right here as well.
RAY SUAREZ: South Carolina looks well suited to a campaign run on pocketbook issues. The state has been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs; unemployment and poverty are higher than the national average, per person and per household income are lower. And South Carolinians are less likely than other Americans to have a high school diploma or college degree, making them more vulnerable to shifts in the economy. The textile industry has shed jobs and closed mills under pressure from cheaper imports, especially from China.
BRAD BURNETT: Traditionally the South is a stronghold — the Bible belt, Republican issue. But the people — the voters are going to be looking to time out hospitals on their side when it cops to jobs, when it comes to taking care of American workers.
SPOKESMAN: By a show of hands could you show us how many of you voted for George W. Bush in 2000?
RAY SUAREZ: These mill owners were heavy supporters of President Bush in 2000.
SPOKESMAN: How many of you are committed to voting for George W. Bush in 2004?
RAY SUAREZ: But they said they’re withholding judgment this time, revving up voter registration drives among their workers and promising to support candidates who will save their industry.
FRED REISS: This is not about a war that is continuing in Iraq as a police state, this is not about some issue that occurred two years ago in New York. This election in our opinion is going to swing on this jobs issue in 2004.
RAY SUAREZ: The war in Iraq has not been a central campaign theme in a state that has supported the U.S. invasion, so the economy has taken center stage here.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: We gotta figure out how to keep jobs here, stop the bleeding and work together with business and workers to create a whole new generation of jobs.
AL SHARPTON: Rather than giving tax cuts to billionaires and tax cuts to multinational corporations, I’d give a two-year tax deferment for businesses to get started, get on their feet, because they will hire people in the community, that’s real entrepreneurship.
RAY SUAREZ: Wesley Clark spoke to textile workers in a union hall in Rock Hill, S.C.
GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Family values is about jobs and under George W. Bush we’ve lost far too many of them. Two and a half million manufacturing jobs. In the last three years the sad truth is that America’s greatest export has been the export of American jobs.
RAY SUAREZ: The Center for Community Change, a national advocacy group for low-income Americans, ran a candidates’ forum in Columbia last week that gave struggling Americans a chance they rarely get: to quiz candidates on economic issues.
YOUNG MAN: Are we in danger of creating a class system in this country by making it harder for poor young people to go to college?
HOWARD DEAN: The answer is we are, as long as George Bush is president we are going to create a permanent class system, and we’re going to change that as soon as we possibly can.
RAY SUAREZ: And the gap between rich and poor has become the signature issue for the Edwards campaign. He stresses it in front of every audience.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We live in a country where there are really still two different Americas: One for those families who get everything they need, and one for everybody else. It doesn’t have to be that way.
RAY SUAREZ: Democrats told us again and again they agree with making the economy the single biggest issue here.
RUTH CRISCO: I’m from a plant that closed and closed out close to 7,000 people out of work. Plant closings and jobs going, the trade market is the reason we’re not going to have our jobs.
EARL WILCOX: I keep coming back to the economy because I think that’s it. And I think electability is an important issue. But you have to keep defining that in relation to the big picture, not in terms of the primary, but in the long run.
RAY SUAREZ: The Republican Party has made religious faith and values a strong part of its appeal in the South — churches across this state were filled to the brim yesterday. Sociologists may call this the most segregated hour in American life, but at the same time, black and white churchgoers had in common a comfort with a role for religion in politics.
CHARLES DICKERSON: I think that we live in a country of morals, and unless we have a moral leader, then we can’t expect for the right thing to be done when in fact the nation is tested.
RAY SUAREZ: At Bible Way Baptist Church in Columbia, John Edwards was welcomed at Sunday morning worship. Across town at Shandon Presbyterian the style of worship was different, but many of the conclusions the same.
CAROLINE PUCKETT: I think it’s important for a lot of Southerners to have a candidate that has a strong faith. I think the question would be what their intentions are, what their motives in professing their faith. Is it to get the Southern vote or is it to project their image as being, you know, a Southerner, but I think it definitely is important as long as people perceive it as being sincere.
DR. LEWIS GALLOWAY, Pastor: People have a lot of misconceptions about the separation of church and state. It’s the institution of church that should be separate from the institution of government. But we certainly think the church should have a moral influence over common concerns for the larger community.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Carter doesn’t think religion puts the Democrats at a permanent disadvantage in the South.
DAN CARTER: What is virtuous about throwing people out of work and leaving them to fend for themselves when we know that however much faith-based groups or churches can do, they can’t take the place of a good job, so you attack the faith issue in that way.
RAY SUAREZ: Representative Jerry Govan is the head of South Carolina’s House Black Caucus. He thinks his party can do a lot better here this time around.
STATE REP. JERRY GOVAN: You talk about the core values that the people of this state are interested in, in terms of how they can improve their quality of life, how they can take care of their families, and how government is not going to be their enemy but their friend, and work with them in terms of getting through the hard times; how, basically, government can be not a burden but a help.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Also, the teachers…
RAY SUAREZ: The day before the vote, the pollsters have encouraging news for do-or-die John Edwards. The North Carolina senator leads John Kerry here, from five to 12 points in a range of surveys.