Democrats to stage earliest debate ever
Nine hopefuls will face off in South Carolina
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Nine Democrats jostling for the chance to face President Bush in 2004 will face off against each other Saturday night in the earliest formal debate in presidential campaign history.
Nearly nine months before the first primary votes are cast, and 18 months before the general election, the Democratic candidates will debate for 90 minutes at a theater on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Health care and tax cuts are likely to be among the issues discussed, along with the war in Iraq, which has divided the Democratic field.
The debate begins at 9 p.m. EDT and is being taped for later broadcast on ABC stations around the country.
South Carolina, which will hold its primary on February 3, 2004, is a key early state on the Democratic calendar. Its primary will be the first held in the South and just the third nationwide, after New Hampshire and Iowa.
"Things have moved up considerably," said former Democratic Gov. Richard Riley. "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 democracy."
"This weekend gives us a tremendous opportunity to really have the country get a feel for who and what we are," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.
Previously, the earliest presidential debate was during the 1988 campaign, when seven Democratic candidates met in Houston on July 1, 1987.
Although Democratic eyes will be focused on South Carolina Saturday, the Palmetto State is one of the most solidly Republican outposts in the South. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976, and both the governor's mansion and legislature are in GOP hands.
But for the candidates, the South Carolina primary is important because it will be the first test of their strength among a key Democratic constituency -- black voters, who compose nearly half of the likely Democratic electorate.
It will also be a test of the candidates' capacity to resurrect moribund Democratic fortunes in the South, after a 2000 wipeout which saw them lose every state in the region to Bush.
In 2004, the 12 states in the fast-growing South together will have 161 electoral votes -- about 60 percent of what Bush would need to get to the magic number of 270.
Two of the nine candidates in the race -- Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina -- are from the South.
The race in South Carolina is wide open, according to results of a poll this week by the American Research Group, an independent polling firm.
Almost half of the Democrats surveyed said they were undecided.
Only one candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has strong name recognition from being Al Gore's running mate in 2000, scored in double digits, at 19 percent.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri was the choice of 9 percent, followed by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, at 8 percent and Edwards, at 7 percent.
Each of the remaining candidates -- Graham, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and Al Sharpton -- tallied less than 5 percent.
CNN Political Writer John Mercurio contributed to this report.