After the diversions, distractions, and debates that have roiled the campaign in recent weeks, Democrats will finally cast their ballots in the South Carolina presidential primary Saturday.
The polls, if they can be believed, indicate a strong victory ahead for Barack Obama over Hillary Ciinton and John Edwards, on the strength of his support from African-Americans, who probably will be a majority of the Democratic electorate. An NBC survey released Thursday night found that Obama had 38 percent, Clinton 30, and Edwards 19, with blacks overwhelmingly backing Obama and whites split between Edwards and Clinton.
The three main candidates have sparred, sometimes angrily, over a variety of issues, including the Iraq war, healthcare, and how to overcome special interests in Washington. But much of the talk in the past few days has focused on former President Bill Clinton, who has gone on the attack against Obama, prompting some of his ex-advisers and friends to say he is going too far with his harsh tone.
"Spouses play prominent roles in many campaigns, but this is not a typical role for a spouse," says one of Bill Clinton's former White House strategists. "Here we have a very visible, ongoing, engaged role for an ex-president. It's unprecedented.... He's playing the role of a vice presidential candidate, the attack dog. He is becoming too much of an issue.'
On Wednesday, the former president accused Obama, his wife's main rival, of putting out a "hit job" on him. He also scolded a CNN reporter in South Carolina for playing up the racial issue, which he said the Obama campaign was "feeding" the media.
Hillary supporters fear that her husband's activities could backfire, especially if she wins the Democratic nomination. At that point, blacks might be so disenchanted with the Clintons' attacks on Obama, who is African-American, that they won't turn out for her. And many independents and moderate Republicans could turn away from her because of fears that Bill would be too much of a player, without public accountability, in a new Clinton White House.
"He would cause a lot of discomfort in the general election," a prominent Democratic strategist told U.S. News.
Of course, some analysts believe the Clinton strategy is working, at least in the short term, by causing Democrats to have second thoughts about Obama. To that end, the Clintons are questioning his experience, his toughness, his commitment to "progressive" ideas, and his electability.
But Obama needs to be careful, too. He can't allow "his antipolitics message to become anti-Clinton," says a key party strategist who is not aligned in the current race. That would alienate the many Democratic primary voters who still admire the former president and his policies
In any case, even if he wins in South Carolina on Saturday, Obama may need a game-breaking play to defeat Clinton for the nomination.
"Obama is going to have to do something dramatic, something that shows he represents a new politics, or Hillary is going to win," says a Democratic insider who has helped to run several presidential campaigns in past years.
Clinton is favored to win the biggest states that have primaries on February 5, when 24 states will hold contests. Among her strong spots are California, New York, and New Jersey. It turns out that Clinton is benefiting from a sorting-out process within the Democratic Party. While African-Americans and many young people are gravitating toward Obama, Clinton is gaining support from women, Hispanics, and blue-collar workers, which, on balance, gives her an advantage because those voters are potentially more numerous than the Obama constituencies.
Down the line, however, this dynamic could hurt the Democratic nomineee because it looks like a return to the interest-group politics that the Democrats were known for in the past.
"If the fight between Hillary and Obama produces the old group politics, the old coalitions, it will damage the nominee," a prominent Democratic strategist says.