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Democrats gather for first debate in accelerated presidential campaign

'Collision in Columbia'

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit

There are nine Democrats who have announced they are seeking their party's nomination for president.
There are nine Democrats who have announced they are seeking their party's nomination for president.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- No one knows what will happen Saturday night when all nine Democratic presidential candidates gather in South Carolina for their first formal debate. But they've already broken one record: holding the earliest formal face-off in a presidential campaign.

The early timing of the "Collision in Columbia" -- a full nine months before any votes are cast in the 2004 primary and 18 months before Election Day -- is yet another reminder that the 2004 presidential race, while so far considered a snoozer, is heating up earlier and faster than any recent battle for the White House.

Previously, the presidential debate that took place earliest in a campaign cycle occurred July 1, 1987, when all seven Democrats vying to challenge then-Vice President George Bush faced off in Houston.

In the 1992 race, the last truly competitive Democratic contest, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton didn't publicly muse about his presidential ambitions until July 1991, and candidates didn't meet in a televised debate until December. As recently as the 2000 campaign, Republicans didn't sit down before a televised audience until October 1999, but the party's front-runner and eventual nominee, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, declined to attend.

"Things have moved up considerably," Richard Riley, a former South Carolina governor and Clinton's education secretary, said Thursday. "The inclination of states to get in on the action is what moves them. But people in South Carolina are ready for a real, participatory primary."

Sen. Joe Lieberman is leading the Democratic field in South Carolina, according to a recent poll.
Sen. Joe Lieberman is leading the Democratic field in South Carolina, according to a recent poll.

Democrats' decision to hold their first debate in South Carolina also reflects how much candidates are rethinking the traditional primary calendar in which New Hampshire and Iowa have played starring roles. South Carolina will hold the first Southern primary, and the third overall, on February 3, 2004.

"This weekend gives us a tremendous opportunity to really have the country get a feel for who and what we are," said Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia-area congressman and one of the state's leading African-American power brokers. "It gives us a real good chance to show the nation and the world who and what we are."

The 90-minute debate, scheduled to start at 9 p.m. ET Saturday, is the marquee event of the South Carolina Democratic Party's two-day annual conference. The cash-strapped state party is kicking off the weekend Friday evening with a Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner and a keynote speech delivered by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose political star has risen since she scored an unexpectedly strong re-election win last year.

Also Friday evening, all nine candidates plan to attend Clyburn's annual fish fry in downtown Columbia, a popular event held in a parking garage, which is sure to attract key black leaders close to Clyburn.

The flag flap

Rep. Richard Gephardt plans to march in a South Carolina parade this weekend.
Rep. Richard Gephardt plans to march in a South Carolina parade this weekend.

Black voters are key in South Carolina, comprising nearly half the primary's likely voters. Nonetheless, Clyburn, among others, is urging Democrats this weekend to avoid debating racially-charged issues like the Confederate battle flag.

"We have spent too much time on that issue for too long," he said. "We need to focus on health care, education and the economy, and we can't do that if everything is defined by how someone might feel about the flag."

Most candidates are also using the three-day swing to court constituencies key to their Southern survival.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who leads the race in a recent poll of state Democrats, will attend a church service in Charleston on Sunday. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts attended a wreath laying ceremony Friday morning at a medical center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Columbia. And former House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri will march in a parade in nearby Eastover.

On Saturday morning, the state Democratic Women's Council is scheduled to hold a breakfast and a candidate "meet-n-greet" before officials open the party convention. Candidates also plan to mug with voters in convention booths. Each also is expected to deliver five-minute speeches to convention-goers Saturday afternoon, before they disappear for last-minute debate prepping.

A crowded field

Sen. John Kerry attended a wreath laying ceremony in South Carolina on Friday.
Sen. John Kerry attended a wreath laying ceremony in South Carolina on Friday.

It's unclear whether the debate, which is being moderated by ABC News's George Stephanopoulos, will shake up the crowded field. Candidates are likely to focus on the recent war in Iraq -- which President Bush touted as a military success in a dramatic prime-time address Thursday night -- health care and tax cuts.

The debate takes place five days after a new South Carolina poll was released showing nearly half the state's Democratic voters remain undecided about which presidential candidate to support.

The survey, conducted by the American Research Group, an independent polling firm, showed Lieberman leading with 19 percent. (Lieberman, the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee, benefited heavily from near universal name recognition.)

Nine percent said they're backing Gephardt, eight percent are backing Kerry; seven percent of respondents back Sen. John Edwards from neighboring North Carolina. The remaining candidates -- Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and the Rev. Al Sharpton -- each took less than 5 percent.


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