GWEN IFILL: It could have been any Friday night party in South Carolina: a little fried fish to eat, a lot of dancing, and a heavy dose of late spring humidity. But this was the place to be for Democrats this weekend, especially for the nine men and women who say they can beat George Bush. Backslapping friends, embracing strangers, competing way before most voters are paying attention, for the Democratic presidential nomination.
SENATOR JOHN KERRY: South Carolina, do we have the energy to win? Do we have the commitment to win? Do we have the people to win? Do we have the ideas to win? Then let's just go win! Let's do it! (Applause)
SENATOR BOB GRAHAM: In January 2001, America had the best record of continued prosperity in our national history. Now we have a stagnant economy, unemployment. We hit the 6 percent mark in unemployment yesterday. Is that the kind of economy we want to have in America?
GWEN IFILL: After watching the president's popularity soar in the wake of a successful war and last week's victory lap, Democratic activists are carefully gauging the steep road ahead to 2004. Candidates know every handshake counts.
VOTER: I want to look at all the candidates and keep an open mind. Anything to get George Bush out of there.
VOTER: I want to see it and hear it. They've got to do some proving to me, a whole lot of proving.
GWEN IFILL: South Carolina is an atypical early destination for Democrats. The state party leaders usually don't even hold a primary, but they changed the rules to get in the game early. The South Carolina primary now falls on February 3, 2004, only a week after New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. Plus, this is a southern state, one known for its political battles over the confederate flag and for its low country barbecue. That could give the earliest primaries next year a distinctly different demographic flavor. Lee Bandy covers South Carolina politics for The State newspaper.
LEE BANDY, Reporter, The State: The African American vote is extremely important. This will be the first primary in which there is a significant African American vote. Most people think that African Americans will make up a majority of the primary. If you look at the 2000 election, the last time we had an exit poll of the Democrats who voted in that election, 54 percent were African Americans. Now the candidate who comes here and thinks he's going to win this by just getting most of the black vote is barking up the wrong tree.
GWEN IFILL: Why not?
LEE BANDY: Well, I think the African American vote will be split among the candidates left in the race, and therefore the independent white voter suddenly becomes pivotal, and really the whites, ironically, could decide the outcome of this primary.
GWEN IFILL: The political king maker in all this is Jim Clyburn, the state's influential congressman. He says candidates need black votes, but cannot afford to ignore white voters who are free to cross party lines to vote in the primary.
REPRESENTATIVE JIM CLYBURN: If you look at South Carolina, where 27 percent of the electorate is in fact African American, where you do have a solid, conservative, white middle class voter that in the past has been voting for Democrats, they've walked away simply because we've lost our ability to relate to them.
So what you've got to do as a Democrat is be able to excite your base, African Americans and other minorities, and at the same time hold on to those white middle-income Americans, which we have not been holding on to in the past. You get a chance to hone that skill in South Carolina that you won't get in Iowa or New Hampshire. And I think whoever gets that done is going to be our nominee and whoever our nominee is will be successful in November.
GWEN IFILL: So the candidates are hard at work: parades for Dick Gephardt, farmer's markets for John Edwards...
VOTER: Nice to meet you.
SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS: Remember, I'm counting on you.
GWEN IFILL: And early morning breakfasts for Howard Dean and Carol Moseley Braun.
GWEN IFILL: Democrats have been shut out of the political limelight ever since Republicans gained control of the White House, the House and the Senate. So this weekend was the equivalent of lightning in a bottle: attentive voters in a pivotal southern state and a chance to shine on a crowded debate stage.
The Saturday night debate, sponsored by ABC News, was a telling early test. Nine candidates, 90 minutes, not a lot of opportunity to break out of the pack. There were disagreements.
SENATOR JOHN KERRY: I think Governor Dean, excuse me, made a statement which I found quite extraordinary, and I still do. He said that America has to prepare for the day when we will not be the strongest military in the world. I mean, that's his statement. I didn't make it up; he said it. I disagree. I believe that a president of the United States has a solemn responsibility...
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But does that mean he's not fit to serve?
SENATOR JOHN KERRY: I believe that anybody who thinks that they have to prepare for the day that we're not the strongest is preparing for a day when we have serious problems.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, let me get Governor Dean's response.
HOWARD DEAN: This is what Senator Kerry said in January in his Georgetown address: In a world growing more, not less, interdependent, unilateralism is a formula for isolation and shrinking influence. That is what I meant, and I stick by that. No commander-in-chief would ever, and I am no exception, willingly allow our military influence to shrink. Unilateralism is a mistake. That's what I said for it. I think the senator made a mistake in criticizing me.
GWEN IFILL: But the other candidates warned that internal squabbles could cause the Democrats the election.
REVEREND AL SHARPTON: I also join Senator Graham and Senator Edwards in appealing that we not be played against each other, that particularly on our first night. Republicans are watching. Let's not... (laughter )...start fighting. Even though I know George is good at instigating it, we should not have the bottom line be tonight that George Bush won because we were taking cheap shots at each other.
SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS: I think it's very important for us to recognize-- whatever personal differences exists, Governor Dean or Senator Kerry-- either one would be a better president than the one we have.
GWEN IFILL: Another disagreement among the nine: how to claim the upper hand on an issue many Americans say is their chief concern, health care. Gephardt has proposed a sweeping universal health care plan, but John Edwards, for one, said it would be too expensive.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You just made a very, very tough charge against Congressman Gephardt; you said taking money from working people, so we think his plan is a tax increase on working people.
SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS: I think it takes money out of the pockets of working people.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And gives it to corporations?
SENATOR JOHN EDWARDS: I know it gives to it corporations.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Congressman Gephardt?
REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD GEPHARDT: He says I'm raising taxes on ordinary Americans. That's the furthest thing from the truth. I am ensuring people are not going to lose their health insurance. I've been all over this country, people say to me all the time, I'm worried I'm going to lose my health care even though I have it. People also say to me, I don't think I can continue to afford the family coverage, or even the individual coverage. I would solve that problem.
GWEN IFILL: Perhaps the sharpest differences came over the candidates' positions on the war in Iraq. Dennis Kucinich steadfastly opposed the war. Joseph Lieberman, who ran for vice president on Al Gore's ticket in 2000, supported it.
REPRESENTATIVE DENNIS KUCINICH: The president's ever-changing reasons for going to war have not been justified by the evidence. Now, how can we, as Democrats, win this election if we simply rubber-stamp this president's destabilizing foreign policy of preemption and nuclear first strike without offering a serious alternative?
SENATOR JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Dennis, I'd say how can we win this election if we send a message of weakness on defense and security after September 11, 2001, to the American people? The war against Saddam Hussein was right.
GWEN IFILL: There were lighter moments, as when debate moderator George Stephanopoulos prodded each candidate on the question of image.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Lieberman, people think you're too nice to be president, and you're just not tough enough to take on President Bush.
SENATOR JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I'd like to come over there and strangle you, George. (Laughter)
GWEN IFILL: This early in the race, it's also clear that minds could be made up in the most basic sorts of encounters, as when Ann Lau of Hilton Head ran into physician turned politician Howard Dean.
GWEN IFILL: Did you meet him?
ANN LAU: Oh, yes. Well, I met him because I fell when I came in and scraped my leg, and I said, well, some lady will have a Band-Aid in her pocket book and he had one in his wallet.
GWEN IFILL: Whether it's a man handy with a Band-Aid or another quick with a felt-tip pen, this weekend was a time for optimism, possibility, and first impressions as the 2004 campaign began in earnest.