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Sept. 16, 2003, could be viewed as the day when the first shots were fired in South Carolina’s presidential primary, a contest taking on increased urgency in the eyes of a number of contenders for the Democratic nomination.

On the same day North Carolina Sen. John Edwards officially announced his candidacy for president, retired Gen. Wesley Clark let word slip out that he too was preparing to run for the nation’s highest office, underscoring the significance of the Feb. 3 showdown, which both camps view as a must-win.

But, several other candidates are beginning to flex their muscles in the state.

A new poll released Friday showed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean with a narrow lead in the state — his first of the race. Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) is expected to receive the official endorsement of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) next week, according to informed Democratic sources.

The first Southern primary, South Carolina is also the first state on the nominating calendar with a significant black population and a meaningful number of moderate to conservative Democratic voters. It is also shaping up as a test of whether a clear alternative to Howard Dean’s candidacy will emerge.

Edwards and Clark have staked their campaigns on their potential to appeal to moderate, Southern voters in a general election.

“Before Clark, [South Carolina] was definitely Edwards’ to lose,” said Chris Cooper, a Democratic political consultant with significant experience in the state.

“Edwards has not surged and not broken out of the pack,” said former state party Chairman Dick Harpootlian. “Clark has been part of the problem because he is beginning to pick up 10 or 12 percent.”

The majority of polling has shown the two flip-flopping in first and second place, and both men are now advertising heavily in the state.

Edwards has spent roughly $600,000 since he first took to the airwaves in August. Clark just launched a $200,000 buy on Monday; Gephardt went up with an ad in the state on Thursday.

Dean advertised briefly earlier in the fall and is scheduled to go on the air today and stay up for the duration of the primary.

Edwards, Clark and Gephardt have agreed to accept federal matching funds and will be limited to roughly $3.6 million of spending in the Palmetto State. Dean and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) have opted out of public financing for the primaries and can spend freely.

Much of Edwards’ strength is based on his close geographic ties to the state. He was born in Seneca in the far northwestern corner of the Palmetto State, and he has represented neighboring North Carolina in the Senate since 1998.

“Edwards fits South Carolina very well,” said Columbia Mayor Bob Coble, who is supporting the North Carolina Senator but admitted he has not been active in the campaign to this point.

Cooper added that “Edwards can speak the language of these people. He connects with South Carolinians on a base level.”

Edwards is running well in the Charlotte media market, where he has received more exposure for his service in North Carolina, the Pee-Dee (the eastern-central portion of the state) as well as in coastal areas such as Charleston, according to Democratic sources who have seen detailed breakdowns of recent polling.

He is also expected to do well in rural areas of the state where his network of trial lawyer support should be a major boon.

Clark leads overall in the state’s Up Country, and several state observers believe his military background gives him an opportunity to offset Edwards’ coastal support.

In the 2000 Republican presidential primary, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Navy officer, had his best showing against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush on the coast, home to the Charleston Naval Base.

Many of these McCain voters will be eligible to vote for Clark because South Carolina has an open-primary system, meaning that Republicans and independents can participate in the process.

Clark will also benefit from the endorsement of former Gov. Jim Hodges (D), who held the state’s highest post from 1998 to 2002.

Hodges also enjoys strong popularity in the state’s overwhelmingly Democratic black community.

Hodges said in an interview late last week that he had never met Clark prior to the campaign but called the retired general “a guy who has a gift.”

“I feel like I understand Southern voters and moderate voters across the country,” said Hodges. “We have got to have a candidate who appeals to people in the political center.”

Hodges met with Clark state director Scott Anderson recently to map a plan of action that includes “seeking additional commitments, helping with fundraising and [advising] on some strategy issues here and across the south.”

One knock on Clark is that his late entry into the race has left his grassroots network far behind those of the other top-tier candidates.

“Clark is an attractive candidate and people think he has the capacity to go all the way,” said state Sen. John Matthews (D), an influential black leader from the Orangeburg area. But, Matthews added: “To carry this state you need grassroots and [Clark] has none.” He noted that Edwards and Gephardt have the best ground operations in the state.

Gephardt’s campaign is expected to get a major boost next week when he picks up the official endorsement of Clyburn. Gephardt has already been endorsed by 5th district Rep. John Spratt.

Clyburn is the most powerful black elected official in the state and has been courted by each of the nine candidates. Blacks make up nearly 30 percent of the South Carolina population, according to the 2000 Census, and represent a significantly larger chunk of the Democratic primary electorate.

“Clyburn is beginning to communicate that he is leaning” toward Gephardt, Harpootlian said.

“Who Clyburn endorses will have a major tactical advantage,” Coble acknowledged.

With his focus on jobs and the economy coupled with his opposition to NAFTA and other trade agreements, Gephardt is making inroads in the Up Country, which has been devastated by factory closings in recent years, said Cooper.

“There is a lot of manufacturing job losses,” said Cooper. “Gephardt has been leading the fight on this issue for a long time.”

Gephardt’s first ad in the state, which hit the airwaves last week, paints him as a fighter for small-town America.

“I want to stop George Bush and fight for America’s middle class,” he says in the ad.

Another potential X-factor in the race is the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has spent considerable time in the state and is popular in the black community.

“Any votes he takes away come from Edwards and then Gephardt,” Cooper speculated.

The rest of the field remains largely unformed to this point as they have not dedicated the same time and resources to the state.

Dean, the frontrunner for the nomination, has not focused heavily on South Carolina, although that appears likely to change with a scheduled appearance Sunday in Columbia with Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and ads hitting the air waves today.

“South Carolina is crucial on Feb. 3,” Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi said Friday.

Dean and Lieberman are the only two major candidates who have not bought the South Carolina Democratic party voter file, according to knowledgeable sources.

Dean’s focus on liberal red-meat issues like his opposition to the war in Iraq could also hurt him among South Carolina Democrats, who are considerably more moderate than their brethren in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Despite that lack of attention, Dean remains in the mix because of his strong positioning in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primaries.

“Dean’s strategy is to win Iowa and New Hampshire and have momentum coming in to South Carolina to parlay into a second or third [place showing],” said Harpootlian.

Much like his campaign nationwide, Kerry started strong in South Carolina but his momentum has petered out, according to numerous sources in the state.

“If the election was held three months ago, Kerry would have had a good chance but he is losing a bit,” said Matthews, who said he had previously been leaning toward endorsing the Massachusetts Senator.

“To win this state you have to visit and put people on the ground,” Matthews said. “Apparently his campaign is not willing to do that.”

“The Kerry people are all mushy because there is no Kerry effort here anymore,” Harpootlian added.

Jessica L. Brady contributed to this report.

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