Fineman: Previewing the Democrats' Debate

If change is in the air, and I think it is, South Carolina is a good a place to see it. Nearly 20 years ago, George H.W. Bush (or rather his adviser, the late Lee Atwater of South Carolina) made white evangelical Christians here the core constituency of his presidential bid. The result not only was victory, but the evangelized Republican Party of today. Now, however, the action is among a different set of voters: in the state's cotton belt, south of the capital, where African-Americans could well decide the Democrats' next nomination-race winner.

This state has a way of making more than its share of history. It will do so again in the '08 presidential campaign, which began in earnest this week as South Carolina State University in Orangeburg hosted the Democrat's first debate.

In Columbia I get the sense that the Democrats are over-the-moon excited about their prospects. State party chairs always sound enthusiastic, but it's easy to tell when they don't mean it. Carol Khare Fowler, who takes over the job this month, and who is a careful, soft-spoken sort, clearly does. "We've got a great field," she told me. That goes, she said, not just for Sen. Barack Obama, but for Sen. Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and the trio of substantive "others"—Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd.

The GOP side of things feels confused, and perhaps a little bleak. As I write, Sen. John McCain is on his way here for a campaign stop—it's his official announcement tour—and there isn't an ounce of buzz on Gervais Street.

McCain's situation here is symbolic of the GOP's larger malaise. In 2000, the Machine That Atwater Built destroyed the maverick senator's surging candidacy, pulling out every nasty trick in the book to do it. As the putative front runner months ago, McCain tried to make that machine his own, but he didn't quite succeed. Major cogs are elsewhere, with other candidates, or sitting out the campaign altogether. McCain has been forced to rely on some of the same locals who advised him—badly, by his own account—in the previous go-round.

The changing-of-the-guard aura was evident on the flight down here the other day, and in the career arcs and current roles of two men on board: Tucker Eskew and Rick Wade.

Eskew hails from a prominent upstate newspaper family. He was an upstart organizer in the Atwater machine 20 years ago, wooing rural and suburban white voters away from their ancestral home in the Democratic Party to the new GOP. Smart, well-educated, with a broad, Kevin Bacon grin, he rose from Atwater gofer to chief of the state party, and then on to a prominent role in the Bush II White House. Now he's cashed out, consulting for business and advocacy groups (including environmental ones) and has teamed with Democrat Mike McCurry. I asked him if he had a GOP candidate for '08. He gave me a quizzical look—and answered no.

Rick Wade, Eskew's contemporary, is following another path. In high school, just after segregation had ended in the state, Wade was the "black co-vice-president" of his class. "Back in those days we had black and white vice presidents," he told me. "It was the only way you kept the peace." The next year Wade became the first black to be president of the class—with no "co-" in the title.

He's paid dues, just as Eskew had, but they haven't quite paid off yet. Wade worked as a page in the legislature, got a master's degree from Harvard and ran, unsuccessfully, for South Carolina secretary of state. He was bidding to become the first African-American since Reconstruction to win a statewide office. That hasn't happened yet.

Wade is now a consultant in Washington, writes a column and does a radio show, but is still, in some ways, waiting for his main chance. He thinks he has found it in Obama. He linked up with him through the Harvard network. He and the former state superintendent of education, Inez Moore Tenenbaum, put together the first Obama rally here a couple of months ago. It was a huge success.

Black voters will be pivotal in the campaign here, just as evangelicals were in the Age of Bush. Clinton, Edwards and the others have their own ties and organizations in the community, and are working them passionately, as well they should: blacks will comprise more than half of the likely primary voters in this state.

Everybody's going to be down home—or try to be. Did you know that Michelle Obama's family hails from the state? (Wade told me.) That John Edwards was born here? That the Clintons have long and deep ties here, from his days as Arkansas governor and the family's frequent trips to Hilton Head?

On Obama's last visit, some smart aleck asked him which he liked better: apple pie or peach cobbler. Luckily, Michelle was there, and she supplied the right local answer: cobbler.

It's the kind of thing you are going to need to know to win in South Carolina—and become president.