Dixie Democrat

Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who are shaping American politics. This week, CBS News' David Miller talks with Joe Werner, executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, which is scheduled to hold the first Democratic nominating contest in the South on Jan. 29, 2008.

CBSNews.com: I wanted to ask you first about the South Carolina Republican Party's decision to move their primary to Jan. 19. Did you hear any rumblings about that before it was announced in the press?

Joe Werner: We'd heard that [South Carolina Republican Party Chairman] Katon Dawson was going to New Hampshire and there was going to be an announcement on the primary date. We didn't know the date he was going to choose, but we had heard a little bit earlier there was going to be some kind of announcement.

CBSNews.com: And when you heard that announcement, what was your initial reaction?

Joe Werner: To be honest, I was a little bit surprised. I thought they were going to go on the Tuesday before that. I thought they were thinking the 22nd. I thought that's what they were originally thinking. I was surprised to hear Saturday the 19th.

CBSNews.com: What was so surprising about Saturday the 19th?

Joe Werner: It just hadn't played into our thoughts. We were trying to figure out what he was going to do and we hadn't thought Saturday was an option for him, only because he was originally on Feb. 5 so we thought, "Well maybe he'll just stick to Tuesdays." But obviously he chose the 19th.

CBSNews.com: You've said you're staying put where you are now, on Jan. 29.

Joe Werner: The South Carolina Democratic primary is on Jan. 29. We're staying put. The chair has made a decision for now that the penalties for moving our primary date are too severe. We would lose, at this point, at least half of our delegates and that is not something that [South Carolina Democratic Party Chairwoman] Carol Fowler wanted to let happen.

CBSNews.com: Do you think the Democratic National Committee would actually come through on that threat, or would there be some sort of negotiating process? For example, they'll have to do something about Florida, which violated party rules by moving to Jan. 29.

Joe Werner: They're going to have to enforce the rules. I really believe that what some states have done have really put them in a tough spot. I think there is a lot of angst and a lot of nervousness on the rules and bylaws committee of the Democratic National Committee because they see this process not working out in a way they originally thought it was going to. I don't know if there's any room for negotiations here. I think the rules are the rules and if they're going to enforce the rules, which you think they would, you're only left with half your delegates.

CBSNews.com: Can you think of any circumstance under which you would move the primary date at this point?

Joe Werner: Not right now, we don't see any. I really don't think so.

CBSNews.com: Since the Republicans made their move, have you heard anything from the national party or local Democrats or the candidates about moving the primary? Is there any pressure on you to do that?

Joe Werner: I wouldn't call it pressure, but there have been inquiries. There have been a lot of questions and confusion. "Well, the Republicans moved, does that mean you will move?" — we've received a lot of those calls. Representatives of the presidential campaigns have called and asked what is it we're going to do. That's why we put out a statement saying the rules are the rules and we have to follow them. I don't know if pressure is the right word, but we have received a lot of feedback.

CBSNews.com: Do you think the Republicans' move will have any impact on the importance and consequence of the Democratic primary in South Carolina?

Joe Werner: No, I don't.

CBSNews.com: What about the fact that Florida looks like it's going to do it on the same date? Do you think that dilutes your impact?

Joe Werner: I don't and here's why: I think presidential candidates and their campaigns are going to campaign in South Carolina far differently than they would in Florida. South Carolina is a state of 4 million people, and there are 2 million voters. There are half as many Democrats. You can meet a lot of Democrats in South Carolina if you come here and do the retail-type of politics you do in New Hampshire and Iowa and Nevada.

You can't do that in Florida. Florida, it's going to be about who can get up with the most TV commercials and there isn't as much voter interaction as there would be in South Carolina. I do think there's a big difference between our states.

CBSNews.com: Is it in some way a good thing that Florida moved, because we'll get to see retail politics and mass media politics on display at once? Or should Florida have stayed where it was?

Joe Werner: I think Florida Democrats were put in a tough spot. It's a Republican governor, a Republican legislature. They really were put in a tough position. Would I have liked to see them stay on the date they were given? Yes, because I'm afraid they're going to lose their delegates. At the end of the day it's going to come down to the credentials committee, which brings in a whole other scenario. It brings in the credentials committee in Denver [at the 2008 Democratic National Convention], whether they'll seat the Florida delegates or not, which is a very convoluted process, I understand. But it is what it is. But I'd hate to see Florida lose any of its delegates. It's a key state on the road to Democrats taking back the White House in 2008, and I would hate to see any Democrat disappointed by that, but at the same time, the DNC has a responsibility to figure this all out. If it's already been figured out — which in our opinion it has been — the rules are the rules and you'll lose your delegates if you vote in those states before a certain date.

CBSNews.com: Let's turn to the campaign in South Carolina. There's the same retail politics you'd see in Iowa or New Hampshire, but how are the voters different than in those states? Are they more conservative or are they different in other ways?

Joe Werner: There are more conservative Democrats but I don't know that Democrats are all that different down here with one giant exception, which is that South Carolina is a very diverse state. Half of our Democratic voters, maybe more, will be African Americans. In Iowa, I think the percentage of African Americans is under 2 percent and I don't know what it is in New Hampshire. We are different from those two states in that sense. I don't know that we're that much more conservative as Democrats. We do have our ways down here though.

CBSNews.com: What do you mean by that?

Joe Werner: South Carolina Democrats are not that different in the sense that we believe in showing fiscal responsibility. South Carolina Democrats believe the war in Iraq is a complete mess and the incompetence by the Bush administration has us bogged down in a civil war. Those are things that folks in Iowa believe. Those are things that folks in New Hampshire believe. We don't have as large a union representation nearly to what Iowa does, or what New Hampshire does, but Democrats in South Carolina, just like in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, are concerned about middle class families not being able to make ends meet, health insurance being the biggest expenditure, not doing something about health care and its affordability and its access. We believe that's a problem, too. We're really not all that much different.

CBSNews.com: If that's the case, then what does having South Carolina come so early add to the process? How does it help select a better presidential candidate?

Joe Werner: It's huge because of the diversity issue. Most political folks will say that African Americans represent a large chunk of our base. Campaigning in South Carolina, with half the electorate being African American, will certainly give you an indication of whether you can relate to that community, if you can talk to their issues. You can translate that over the rest of the states. There's a lot of value to having South Carolina early.

CBSNews.com: Do you think that's going to translate into an advantage for Barack Obama's campaign? From what you've seen of his organization, has he been doing a pretty good job there?

Joe Werner: Sen. Obama does have a very strong organization in South Carolina. I think he's doing a very good job in this state. He has a very good team down here and it shows. I travel all across the state, going to county party breakfasts and every time I go to one there's an Obama person there talking about Sen. Obama. He's doing very well here. But so is Hillary Clinton and so is Bill Richardson. Last quarter, Bill Richardson raised, I believe, almost $100,000 here. And you can't ever count out John Edwards. John Edwards won this state in '04 and he still does have a lot of very strong backers here. He was born in South Carolina and represented North Carolina. There's still a natural draw to him for a lot of South Carolina Democrats. Senator Clinton and her message of folks being invisible, that resonates here in South Carolina. It's going to be a great race, it really is, and it's been very exciting from a party perspective to get Democrats down here excited and you can tell that there is more energy now than I think a lot of folks would say they've seen in a long time.

CBSNews.com: Do you have any theories as to why, right now, Sen. Edwards, who won in '04 in his birthstate, is trailing in polls there?

Joe Werner: I really think if you're watching the polls now you're not doing anyone any favors. I really believe that. I don't know what polling says now. I do think that Sen. Edwards is shifting staff. It seems like Sen. Edwards is putting a lot of emphasis on the Iowa Caucuses. But I do think he has a strong team here. There is a lot of institutional support for him here.

CBSNews.com: New Hampshire and Iowa, in the general election, are both battleground states — New Hampshire looks like it's leaning pretty "blue" these days. South Carolina's been very "red" in presidential elections. Do you think the Democrats there view the primary in a more special way? Do they view this as their one shot to make a real impact on the race?

Joe Werner: Governor Dean's 50-state strategy, as chair of the Democratic Party — having South Carolina as an early primary state plays into all of that. I believe that Democrats in South Carolina are too far behind in too many regions in too many counties in too many precincts of our state to just give up on it. I believe that. Do I think that South Carolina will turn blue this next cycle? Probably not. But over the course of the next few cycles, I think we absolutely can. Writing us off will not do anything to help South Carolina Democrats.

CBSNews.com: Is there a sense of that kind of excitement among the Democratic voting base there?

Joe Werner: Oh my goodness. The rank and file here, like I said earlier, are more energized and more excited than I think a lot of folks have seen in a very, very long time. From county chairs all the way down to precinct vice-chairs, there is a lot of energy and excitement in the South Carolina Democratic Party right now.

Editor's Note:Much like Washington, Political Players will be taking the rest of the month off. It will return in September.
By David Miller