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Democratic Candidates Prepare for Competitive S. Carolina Primary - 2004-01-30

Next Tuesday, February 3, voters in seven states will cast ballots in Democratic Party primaries. Most of the nation's attention will be focused on South Carolina, the first southern state to take part in the Democratic Party's primary election cycle. Primary could be the most competitive primary yet, and could decide which Democrat challenges President Bush in November.

Massachusetts Senator, John Kerry, the acknowledged front-runner in the Democratic race is facing his most serious test yet in South Carolina. Mr. Kerry began his campaign here last September, but rarely visited the state until his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

His absence cost him support, but now Mr. Kerry is back, doing his best to convince voters that he, and not North Carolina Senator, John Edwards, who was born here, is the best man to take on George Bush. Mr. Edwards, who had long counted on victory here, is fighting for his political life says Richard Harpootlian, who until last year, was South Carolina's Democratic Party chairman.

"If Edwards does not win here he is out," he said. "If Kerry does not win here he is ok. So, Edwards has got everything to lose and Kerry does not, which makes Kerry dangerous."

Most polls in South Carolina show the two men in a statistical tie with the other candidates far behind. Both men are campaigning hard for South Carolinas African-American vote. Blacks make up 30 percent of the state's population and could make up 50 percent of Democratic Party voters on February 3rd. Lee Bandy, the senior political writer for South Carolina's largest newspaper, The State, says the contest for the African American vote could be complicated by the presence of Al Sharpton on the ballot, the only African-American left in the Democratic primary race.

"The African-American community will make up probably at least half of the primary voters, if not more than that," he said. "Right now I would say that vote is up for grabs. Al Sharpton, the African American in this race is doing quite well. He is in third place with 15 percent.

"He is not going to win, but he could be a spoiler, and what do I mean by that, well he could be taking black votes away from the other candidates," continued Mr. Bandy. "If that happens, then the white vote will become the swing vote in this primary contest."

Lee Bandy says more than in Iowa or New Hampshire, the primary concern of voters, both white and black, is the loss of jobs.

"The top issue here in South Carolina is jobs," he stressed. "Sixty-nine thousand South Carolinians have lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector under George Bush. So that is issue number one. Issue number two is health care. There are a lot of people today who do not have health care insurance. And, then there are those who are under-insured, who about one paycheck away from bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills. So, that is a real hot issue. The Iraq war is an issue, but not a dominant issue in South Carolina."

Both Richard Harpootlian and Lee Bandy say John Kerry's surge in popularity in the state over the past few days can be tied to the desire of South Carolina Democrats to select a candidate who can beat George Bush in November. Both men say while South Carolinians might like John Edwards, Al Sharpton, and the other candidates more than John Kerry, they, like voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, see in John Kerry a winner, who might be able to become the first Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to carry South Carolina in a general election.