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The Presidential Battleground Heads South

The presidential campaign’s torrid pace dips, just a bit, this week, as there is only one contest, and that’s on Saturday with the South Carolina Democratic primary, now must-win for Barack Obama. The Republicans will focus on Florida, where the primary is next week. On Thursday, the remaining Republicans debate in Boca Raton.


While John McCain cleared a big hurdle winning the historically key South Carolina primary on Saturday, he’s hardly out of the woods. Now leading in the national polls, McCain will spend a million dollars today on Florida TV ads.

It’s jump ball in the Sunshine State, with McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney all bunched together.

Michigan winner Romney got no bump in the polls from last Tuesday’s win, and, running a distant fourth in South Carolina, focused instead on the lightly contested Nevada Republican caucuses. He won, with Ron Paul a distant second, but no one else campaigned there, and barely a third as many Republicans participated in Nevada as did so on the Democratic side.

Republican turnout in South Carolina, despite the very spirited contest amidst a bright national spotlight, was down dramatically from 2000, when McCain was beaten by George W. Bush. 400,000 voted on Saturday, but nearly 600,000 voted in 2000.

This week, we’ll get a good idea about how successful former frontrunner Rudy Giuliani’s controversial strategy can be. After fading in New Hampshire, where he once led, and stepping away from that contest, Giuliani has staked his entire campaign on Florida. Now he must contest with a revived McCain, the only candidate who’s won in both the North and the South, for national security voters and moderates.

We’ll also see how well Mitt Romney plays. After failing with his longstanding plan to emerge as the frontrunner by winning Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney won big in Michigan, where his father was a popular governor and car company CEO, by pledging to revitalize the auto industry. But he lost badly in the first Southern test in South Carolina, and Florida will be a crucial test of his ability to win Southern votes, key for any Republican who hopes to win the White House.


Florida is also a big test for Mike Huckabee. South Carolina has a huge evangelical vote, which McCain actually cut into. And Fred Thompson, with his spirited third place finish, may have prevented Huckabee from winning. Can the charming ex-Arkansas governor expand his vote beyond his Christian fundamentalist base?

If McCain wins Florida, he may be on his way to the nomination, though the free-spending Romney will keep fighting. If he loses, it’s back to a muddle.

Tonight, the Democrats debate in South Carolina. Hillary Clinton now has a slight but real edge coming out of Nevada. Here is what we know. Hillary Clinton won narrowly in the overall vote among Nevada Democrats, thanks to a huge edge among Latinos as they contemplated voting for a black man. But she lost amongst the overall tally of national convention delegates, as rural Nevada whites proved more than ready to vote for a black guy.

Obama needs to solve the chronic black/brown divide in the Democratic Party. Part of Hillary’s edge with the Latino vote in Nevada is due to strong campaigning. She has strong Latino backers, such as LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta. But part of her edge seems due to racial politics.

The Nevada Democratic caucuses saw a massive turnout of participants, nearly 120,000, which is well over even what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had hoped for. “Today’s caucus was a tremendous success,” said the pumped up, usually phlegmatic Nevadan. “Well over 100,000 Nevadans got out and made their voices heard, including 69 in my hometown of Searchlight.”


Clinton beat Obama by nearly 3 to 1 among Latinos. Which was quite interesting, in that Obama was backed by two potent unions with many Latino members, the culinary workers and the service employees. But the turnout at the at-large caucus sites, casinos along the Las Vegas Strip, which were set up to allow lower-income casino workers to participate while working a busy holiday weekend – this is Martin Luther King Day weekend in Vegas, a big-time holiday there – was less than expected. And Clinton confounded expectations, essentially matching Obama along the Vegas Strip and sweeping to a big win in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.

This more than matched Obama’s wins in most of Nevada’s other counties. Hillary’s ability to win big among Latinos, even when many of their leaders, such as in the unions I mentioned, went with Obama, raises very interesting questions about the internal racial politics of the Democratic Party as the first very serious black candidate for president continues his closely fought contest with the former first lady. Reports from around the state indicate that the big labor forces backing Obama found it tough to deliver for him. At issue, Latino workers pushed to vote for an African American. And so the race issue reared its head in yet another way this year.

If Obama can’t do much better with Latino voters, he won’t be able to win the California primary, the biggest prize on February 5th. Hillary leads here and has a strong organization, but independents voters — who generally favor Obama — are shut out of the Republican primary and could give him a big boost.


He has time to rethink his approach on Latinos, since this week’s contest, the Saturday primary in Souoth Carolina, doesn’t have many Latinos. Perhaps half the vote will be African American, and there Obama has overtaken the Clintons’ longstanding edge. Hillary led for a long time in South Carolina, but now Obama has the lead. He needs a sizable win to stay in the race with the formidable Clinton political machine.

Speaking of the Clintons, another fascinating thing to watch this week will be the behavior of the former president. He’s gotten very aggressive in promoting his wife’s candidacy, attacking Obama personally, getting visibly upset with a TV reporter questioning him about the lawsuit he backed to block those at-large caucuses on the Las Vegas Strip.

Unfortunately, I missed his performance on Saturday when he personally campaigned inside a caucus site at the Mirage on the Vegas Strip. I wish I could have beamed over there to see it.

Old friend and colleague Marc Cooper was there, and reports that Clinton, accompanied by longtime fundraising honcho Terry McAuliffe, the ex-Democratic national chairman, aggressively buttonholed the various maids and bellhops gathering to cast their caucus votes. Some were apparently intimidated.

Clinton is certainly behaving in an unusual way for a president of the United States. I don’t remember former President Bush attacking John McCain when his son was running in 2000. But politics ain’t beanbag, and its safe to say that Bill Clinton really does want Hillary to win.


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