Thursday, April 26, 2007

Democrats prepare for 2008 campaign's first debate

Democrats prepare for 2008 campaign's first debate
By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama go face to face along with six other Democratic presidential contenders on Thursday at the opening debate of the fast-starting 2008 campaign.

With the presidential election in November 2008 still more than 18 months away, the eight Democratic White House candidates meet in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in the earliest presidential debate ever.

Clinton, 59, the senator from New York who is seeking to become the first woman president, has been leading in most national polls. But Obama, 45, a Illinois senator who could be the first black president, has been rising in some polls and matched her in fund raising.

Their face-off comes in an early primary state that holds the first nominating contest in the South in January 2008.

"People are going to be able to see these candidates face to face for the first time and start to evaluate them," said Joe Erwin, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "Each candidate has supporters, but a lot of people are still shopping."

Former first lady Clinton and first-term senator Obama will be competing with the winner of the last South Carolina primary in 2004, former Sen. John Edwards, the man who ended up in that campaign as the party's vice presidential nominee.

Erwin said the win by Edwards would help him "but they have to be careful. It's not 2004. It's a totally different race." Both Clinton and Obama are putting together strong campaign organizations in the state, he said.

In 2004, nearly 50 percent of the primary voters in South Carolina were black, a voting bloc that provides strong support for both Clinton and Obama.

South Carolina is scheduled to hold the fourth nominating contest in the 2008 Democratic race eight months from now, following Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, and its economic and racial diversity could offer one of the first broad tests of each candidate's appeal.

Five other contenders who are trying to elbow their way into the top tier also will participate -- Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.

The debate on the campus of South Carolina State University kicks off three days of political activity in South Carolina.

The previous earliest presidential debate was during the last White House campaign, when Democratic candidates met in South Carolina in mid-May 2003.

Republican White House candidates meet in California next week in their first debate.