By Candy Crowley
CNN Washington Bureau
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news and analyze the stories behind events. Senior political correspondent Candy Crowley is covering Thursday's Democratic debate in South Carolina.
ORANGEBURG, South Carolina (CNN) -- Ready or not, here it comes -- the first debate of the 2008 presidential race. Eight Democrats will battle for airtime in a 90-minute debate Thursday night. Here is a viewer's guide:
Just a night with friends
Don't bet on huge pyrotechnics between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
The calendar and the nature of their campaigns argues against jugular politics. It is too early in the season to go negative now. There is plenty of time for that before the January Iowa caucuses.
Then, too, Clinton is the front-runner, and it's an axiom of politics that front-runners need to be above the fray lest they get muddied up.
And while you might expect Obama to throw a punch, this is a guy who has promised a different kind of campaign without the usual "politics of destruction."
Besides with President Bush to kick around, they don't need to go at each other.
Former Sen. John Edwards (who polls especially well in his native South Carolina) needs to find some running room.
A trial lawyer with national debate experience from the 2004 campaign, Edwards is quick on his feet and will relish the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Clinton and Obama.
Watch for a breakout performance by one of the "lower-tier" candidates. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, probably the best-credentialed guy in the race, wants a chance to sport his resume.
Ditto Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, who after years in the U.S. Senate are looking to show themselves as men of substance.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who unveiled articles of impeachment this week against Vice President Dick Cheney, is looking to rekindle a love affair with the left, already smitten by his fierce opposition to the war.
And finally, former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska, largely a self-funded candidate, needs some oxygen in a race where he is the least known.
These debates are sunshine for a rarely covered group trying to get out from under the shadow of Obama and Clinton. They will make the most of it.
Location, location, location
The debate is taking place on the campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college. Expect questions on the educational and economic gap between blacks and whites, a problem particularly acute in this state.
South Carolina is also host to the first Southern primary in late January. African-Americans are expected to make up half of the state's Democratic primary voters.
Dinner plans? Washing you hair?
Set your Tivo or wait till the next time. Republicans will debate next week at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
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