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S.C.: Last Stand For Edwards?

Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit has analysis of the Democratic presidential race.

John Edwards will make the last stand against John Kerry on his march toward the Democratic nomination on Tuesday here in South Carolina. If Kerry manages to win here -- a distinct possibility -- and in most of the other seven states holding primaries and caucuses on Tuesday, it's hard to fathom a situation in which he does not lock up the nomination, possibly as early as mid-February.

Edwards, of course, has long said the future of his campaign rests entirely on a win in the Palmetto State. And, the junior North Carolina senator can take solace in a post-New Hampshire CBS News poll of likely Democratic voters that finds him leading John Kerry 30 percent to 18 percent. (Wesley Clark, Howard Dean and Al Sharpton all were lumped together in third at around 10 percent.)

But that same poll is rife with potential pitfalls for Edwards. Eight-in-ten South Carolina Democrats tells CBS News that they won't vote for someone just because he is from the South. Unfortunately for Edwards, that is the crux of his entire campaign –"Vote for me, South Carolina, I am one of you." John Kerry was lambasted this past week for saying, "it's time we stop thinking of the South as a foreign country." While Kerry was criticized for his comments – how dare he write off the South like that? – his comments reflected some truth. In an era of Walmarts and Starbucks on every corner, it's not rational politics to say only a Southerner can win in the South. Would it help? Certainly. Is it a prerequisite? No more so than being from the Midwest (remember Dick Gephardt?) was a requirement for winning Iowa.

Another trouble spot for Edwards: black voters. Blacks have not yet gelled around a single candidate here. The survey found Al Sharpton pulling 22 percent among blacks and Edwards dropping to 15 percent. Kerry, meanwhile, has the backing of 17 percent of blacks. Another 25 percent were undecided. But, the important fact is that this poll was taken before Jim Clyburn endorsed Kerry. The question-of-the-weekend down here – bar none -- is how much Clyburn, whose name can hardly be written without saying "the state's most powerful black politician," can actually deliver of that vaunted support to Kerry in the form of votes.

South Carolina, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire -- to borrow a clichéd phrase from the 1990s – actually "looks like America." With an electorate expected to be at least 40 percent black, candidates here face a challenge unlike the lily fields of Iowa and New Hampshire.

No better sign of that shift could be seen than in Wesley Clark's weak attempt to smear John Kerry on Friday afternoon by bringing up more than decade old spat over affirmative action. In a press conference after an African-American issues forum in Columbia, Clark cited Kerry's early 1990s questioning of the absolute correctness of affirmative action. "If people want to question it, that is their right. But if they do, they ought to admit it," Clark said. "We are not going to beat George W. Bush with old-fashioned fudge-it-up politics."

Meanwhile, Howard Dean continues his downhill slide. What an incredible week of missteps and reversals for the former Vermont governor, who in the course of two days all but admitted he doesn't expect or plan to win in any of Feb. 3 states holding primaries and fired Joe Trippi, the godfather of his vaunted Internet political revolution. Trippi was replaced by Roy Neel, an able political operative, but as a longtime lobbyist and dreaded consummate Washington insider, not exactly the kind of "People-Powered Howard" outsider who's inspired Dean's backers so far. The long-term effect – and by long-term I mean between now and next week – of firing Trippi could be enormous, if not deadly, for Dean's presidential hopes.

Already, the debilitating effect of two huge back-to-back defeats was evident when watching Dean at Thursday's debate in Greenville, S.C. His half-hearted attempts to make the debate less "mellow" by attacking Kerry on his Senate record smacked of desperation. And, worse for Dean, none of his fellow candidates rose to the bait and helped pile on the frontrunner. In the end, not a glove was laid on Kerry.

Worst of all, in the midst of all this, Dean announced that he has essentially spent all of the $40 million windfall he collected in 2003. The situation in the Dean campaign coffers is so bad that he had to ask his staff to eschew their pay for the next two weeks. Worse, and more damaging, he does not plan to run ads – and hence compete – in any of the Feb. 3 states.

So, the race in South Carolina remains John Edwards' to lose – for now. It's a two-man race here, and the world is watching. Not, perhaps, as closely as they were pre-Iowa, but closely nonetheless. The vote here could well decide who faces George W. Bush in November.

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