By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 4/26/2007 3:21:24 PM ET 2007-04-26T19:21:24

For the second presidential cycle in a row, South Carolina has pulled off the coup of hosting the first presidential debate.

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But while South Carolina Democrats have flexed their muscles in the presidential pre-game, they still have a ways to go to be the decisive primary akin to what the South Carolina Republicans' primary has become over the past generation.

In the last three open seat fights for the Republican nomination, South Carolina has been THE primary that has delivered two presidents (both named Bush) and one nominee (Bob Dole).

Bipartisan cooperation lacking
South Carolina's history with the Democrats is not nearly as storied.

One problem the South Carolina Democrats have had in making this primary significant is a lack of bipartisan cooperation. Unlike the two parties in Iowa or New Hampshire, the two parties in South Carolina do nothing to work together to ensure a strategic calendar role. In fact, as of this writing, the Democrats and the Republicans have their primaries scheduled for two different days.

How stupid is this? Consider the fact that both state parties have to pay for the primary themselves. Unlike most presidential primaries, South Carolina taxpayers do not foot the bill. It's why the filing fees for this primary are in the five figures. (It's a staggering $25,000 for each Republican candidate.)

Why the two parties don't work together to 1) hold their primary on the same day guaranteeing an attractive media event; and 2) share the costs of opening polling places, is why, for now, South Carolina will be only sporadically influential.

Focus on South Carolina
The good news for South Carolina this cycle is that despite the chaotic nature of when the primary will be (Democrats are definitely Jan 29th, Republicans will probably be one or two Saturdays earlier, depending on New Hampshire) is that candidates from both sides are targeting the state.

Since this a Democratic event, let's focus on what this primary will mean for them.

All three frontrunners have a reason to fight in South Carolina.

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Of the second tier Democrats, both Joe Biden and Bill Richardson have begun to concentrate significant resources in the state. In fact, there was a time when it seemed as if Biden was vying to be the state's third senator.

The fight for the black vote
The DNC awarded the primary to South Carolina based on the high number of African-Americans that participate in the Democratic primary. The idea of the DNC-designed primary calendar was to provide an early state that had a more diverse electorate compared to Iowa and New Hampshire. Clearly, South Carolina fits the bill.

The big fight, of course, is for the black vote. Obama is assumed to have an advantage because of the color of his skin. But the black vote isn't monolithic in the South (or anywhere for that matter). Al Sharpton received just 10%, overall, in 2004 in South Carolina, despite the fact that 47% of the 2004 primary electorate was African-American. Black voters won't just support a candidate of the same color if that candidate is not considered viable. So Obama, as long as he's a frontrunner coming into the South Carolina primary, has a great shot to win. But if he's faltering coming into this primary, then watch out for either Edwards or Clinton.

What could be fascinating about this primary is that the fight for second place could end up being more important than the fight for first. At least that's what South Carolina Democrats are hoping for.

Ultimately, the primary is not going to be held in a vacuum. For one, what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire is going to have a significant influence on the South Carolina primary. And that's assuming the primary is just one week after New Hampshire. Should the calendar get reshuffled because New Hampshire decides Nevada is a significant threat AND Florida goes ahead and sets its primary for the same day as the Democrats have slated South Carolina, then the state will once again be relegated to minor league influential status.

Battle to be 'first in the South'
The South Carolina Republican reputation is well established and the state party seems willing to do whatever it takes to simply move their primary to an earlier date to guarantee its "first in the South" status. Already, GOP Chair Katon Dawson has indicated that he'll both shadow New Hampshire and leapfrog Florida if necessary.

If all of these calendar maneuverings happen, the South Carolina Democrats could find themselves in a difficult position. If they don't move with the Republicans and end up, for instance, sharing their primary with Florida, everything I wrote above is moot.

Still, give South Carolina Democrats Jim Clyburn and Joe Erwin (the state party chair) credit for securing the first debate. Because even if the primary ends up an after thought come next January, no one can take away the fact that South Carolina introduced the country to the Democratic field for president.

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