The U.S. presidential contenders face key tests in South Carolina and Nevada on Saturday, as they continue battle for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
The Republican White House hopefuls face what could be a pivotal primary in South Carolina, the first southern state to take part in this year's state-by-state presidential nominating process.
Public opinion polls in South Carolina suggest a tight race between Senator John McCain of Arizona, who won the New Hampshire primary, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus vote.
McCain, like most of the presidential contenders from both parties, is focused on voter concerns about a weakening U.S. economy.
"And the message is pro-growth, less taxes, less spending," he said. "That is the message and we are going to do it!"
McCain is hoping his experience in national security issues will carry him to victory in South Carolina.
Huckabee is counting on a strong turnout from religious voters who hold conservative views on social issues like abortion and gay marriage.
"Give me a chance Saturday," he said. "Give me that victory Saturday, and I will remember that it happened here in South Carolina, where people said this is where we send the next president to the White House."
Huckabee may have an advantage in South Carolina because of his southern roots, but he faces competition from another southerner, former U.S. senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee.
Political experts say Thompson needs a strong showing in South Carolina or his presidential campaign may be over.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is also in the running in South Carolina and is the only Republican contender spending much time in Nevada, which holds party caucuses on Saturday.
"I am going to Washington to help the American people, and that is what this campaign is all about," he said.
Romney is hoping to build momentum fresh off his victory earlier in the week in the Republican primary in the mid-western state of Michigan.
Nevada is the main focus of the Democratic race on Saturday. Polls there show a tight race among the top three contenders, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards.
After Nevada, the Democratic race heads to South Carolina for a primary on January 26. Nearly half the Democratic voters in South Carolina are African-Americans, and Clinton and Obama are expected to wage a strong campaign for their support.
With no clear presidential frontrunner in either party at the moment, many voters seem to be basing their decision on whom to support on who they like best in terms of personality and character.
Ross Baker is a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"So what you are really left with in the primaries are candidate qualities and issues," he said. "And I think the character and the personalities of the candidates have been under tremendous scrutiny. So yes, without question, this is a very, very big factor in the outcome."
The Democratic and Republican presidential contenders are looking to build momentum in advance of the critical primaries and caucuses on February 5, when 22 states will hold presidential nominating contests.
The party nominees for president will be chosen at the national nominating conventions later this year.
The Democrats will meet in Denver in late August while the Republicans gather in Minneapolis-St. Paul in early September. The U.S. election is November 4.