The Debate's Real Winner? South Carolina

Vaughn Ververs is Senior Political Editor for
Orangeburg, South Carolina certainly rolled out the red carpet for the eight presidential candidates attending last night's presidential debate. Banners were hung, streets cleaned and shrubs groomed in advance of this campaign's first big event, all for the sake of the candidates. Oh, and those 500 or so members of the press tagging along.

With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding these events, all the handicapping and punditry, it's easy for us to overlook the impact they have on places like Orangeburg – or the state of South Carolina as a whole. How much of an impact? About $30 million according to an estimate from the state's chamber of commerce. Can that much of an economic windfall come from a 90-minute debate? Considering what it takes for the media and the campaigns themselves to prepare, it's not unbelievable.

That's because the debate is but one event in a two-day run of Democratic events, culminating tonight at the famous fish-fry hosted by Rep. James Clyburn, the most sought-after endorsement in the state for these candidates. Over the course of two, three or four days that the media and national campaign staff is in the state, they rent hotel rooms, consume food and rent cars, vans and even busses. The campaigns have t-shirts and signs printed by local businesses, rent rooms and pay for the travel of supporters across the state.

It may or may not come to $30 million when it's all added up, but it is a significant boost to the local economy. If all that can come from a few days of activity this far out from the presidential primary season, it's easy to understand why states like Iowa and New Hampshire are so protective of their first-in-the-nation primary status.

South Carolina and Nevada have elbowed their way into the early lineup to some extent as well in recent years but nothing still says presidential nominating season like Iowa and New Hampshire. The activity in those states is already in high gear and more and more media observers show up by the day. For them, the economic impact is much larger than it would be for a populous state like California or Florida.

For all the money that can flow into localities, however, there is sometimes something else just as important – national recognition. The sole reason Orangeburg and South Carolina State was chosen for this debate was Clyburn. The congressman attended the college and told me he wanted to use this event to put a nearly 40-year old incident to rest.

In 1968, Orangeburg suffered through a similar incident. Three students were killed, and over 25 injured, when state troopers fired upon civil rights demonstrators in Orangeburg. The event was overshadowed by the greater events of that tumultuous year, including unrest over the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Clyburn said the attention given to this college town nearly four decades later is a way to find healing. "Thirty-nine years ago, an incident occurred at the same time a similar incident occurred at Kent State in Ohio. The whole country focused on Kent State. Very little attention was given to this community," Clyburn told me. "And this community, this campus, went into what I call a 39-year funk. This is giving us an opportunity to turn the page, to get beyond 1968." And how did it turn out? According to Clyburn, "I am very, very pleased, almost emotional about it."

For Clyburn, Orangeburg and South Carolina, it must have almost seemed worth it to have all us media types invading their state.