Now or Never for Obama
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina has become a must-win state for Barack Obama.
Whatever the outcome of Saturday's Democratic presidential primary here, the Illinois senator has the money and the organization to compete in the nearly two dozen states voting on Feb. 5.
But as his first and only victory, in Iowa on Jan. 3, slips further into history, his strategists concede that Obama badly needs to demonstrate broad enough support to slow Hillary Clinton's progress toward the nomination.
Having trailed her in popular votes in both New Hampshire and Nevada, where he was favored, Obama finds himself more in need of help than he perhaps expected from the voters here.
This state offers him many advantages he will not enjoy automatically when the competition moves to California, New York, New Jersey and other delegate-rich states next month.
The African American vote is a larger percentage of the Democratic electorate here -- perhaps half the total -- than in any of those states, and even Clinton supporters credit Obama with having the best field organization on the ground. Clinton has switched her South Carolina leadership several times, while Obama has had steady and impressive local management.
This is also the state where John Edwards won in 2004 -- and is perhaps the last place where the native son can be expected to siphon off a significant number of white votes this year, simplifying the math for an Obama victory in a state where racial polarization often prevails.
For all these reasons, anything other than an Obama victory on Saturday would represent a significant setback to his long-term prospects, while Clinton has built-in alibis for a possible loss.
The stakes may explain why tensions became so obvious during the Monday night debate in Myrtle Beach, with Clinton and Obama accusing each other of distorting the record and falsifying their own voting histories.
Their exchanges were personal and angry. He referred to her as a corporate lawyer who had served as a director for Wal-Mart, a company with an anti-union reputation. She shot back that he had been a lawyer for a reputed Chicago slumlord. Any thought that these two might someday team up as a Democratic ticket vanished into the night.
Edwards seemed stunned by the ferocity of the other two but took advantage of the situation by landing some punches of his own on both. He sided with Clinton on health care but reinforced Obama's contentions on campaign finance, special interests and Social Security, only to switch and join Clinton in questioning why Obama had voted "present" so often in the Illinois legislature.
No one came out unscathed, but Edwards probably fared best, raising the possibility that he could split the white vote with Clinton and, ironically, thereby help Obama.