Headed for a Showdown

Upcoming contests will be tiebreakers for Clinton and Obama.

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Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea at a rally in Nashua, N.H., last week.

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For the Democrats, it comes down again to Clinton and Obama, with the possibility of a solid showing by Edwards, who was born in South Carolina. Obama could make a big comeback on the strength of African-American voters who had been withholding support because they weren't convinced he could win. His victory in Iowa and near miss in New Hampshire could cause many blacks to shift his way.

Wild Bill. Bill Clinton might be the wild card. The former president remains very popular among blacks, and South Carolina political strategists say that if he made a personal appeal on behalf of his wife, it could make a big difference—as long as he didn't go too far. In New Hampshire, he said Obama's message of change amounted to a "fairy tale," which Obama supporters considered excessive. "President Clinton needs to show more respect for Obama," says a Democratic activist in South Carolina who hasn't taken sides in the race.

Finally, there is high potential in South Carolina for a very negative campaign. In fact, it's a tradition. In 2000, for example, McCain lost the South Carolina primary to George W. Bush amid harsh attacks on his character and his political stands, and he vows not to let such slash-and-burn tactics torpedo him again. Last week, McCain created a Truth Squad in South Carolina, led by four local and state officials, to respond immediately to attacks.

But so far, it has been Romney, not McCain, who has been the target. A controversial "Christmas card" arrived in the mailboxes of Republican operatives over the holidays, falsely claiming to be from Romney, that included references to his Mormon faith. One talked about God's acceptance of polygamy (which the church abandoned long ago); another reference praised the Virgin Mary because she was "exceedingly fair and white." The gambit was seen as a way to remind GOP activists of Romney's religion, which many conservative Christians consider a big vulnerability.

So far, no one has figured out who was responsible, but state officials of both parties aren't surprised. They predict that the dirty tricks have only just begun.

—With Alex Kingsbury in New Hampshire