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Primary Day in South Carolina

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By Karin Caifa in Columbia, SC

It's like déjà vu all over again, to quote the esteemed philosopher of another favorite American pastime, baseball's Yogi Berra.

South Carolina is in the thick of presidential politics again today. Last Saturday Republicans braved rain, sleet, wind and - in some parts of the state - snow, to cast their votes in the first-in-the-South GOP primary. Today, with the skies a little less cloudy and the temperatures slightly warmer, the Democrats take their turn at the polls. And the local newspaper slipped under my hotel room door this morning, The State, trumpets, "Signs Pointing to Record Turnout."

Here in South Carolina, it doesn't take long for the natives to figure out that I'm not from around here. The natural thought progression is that I must somehow be tied to the primaries, like the vast majority of out-of-towners. At a Starbucks near the State Capitol in Columbia Friday afternoon, the woman in front of me cooed about the lovely lilt of the Aiken, South Carolina, native working the register. "What a gor-gee-ous accent, you have, young lady," she purred.

Hearing me place my order behind her, for a venti "kaw-fee" (or "coffee," as you guys reared outside of New York refer to a certain hot, caffeinated beverage) the same woman seemed startled and somewhat horrified. Whipping her head around, trying not to stare, she said, "Oh my, that's not an accent from around here," she said with a smile as faux as her leopard-print coat.

Actually, she did me a favor. By outing me as an intruder - and, consequently, as a member of the media -- she gave me an opening to talk to two guys in the line behind me, one sporting a John Edwards sticker and the other a Barack Obama pin. They both looked to be in their late-50s to early-60s, both white men. And when they opened their mouths, there was no question where they were from either.

"Born and raised right here in South Carolina," the man with the Edwards sticker, Jack, said. "Just like John Edwards."

Jack voted for Edwards here in 2004, when the former North Carolina senator beat John Kerry by taking 45% of the vote. That strength in the South helped nudge Kerry to choose Edwards as his running mate and, well, we all know how that story ends.

"Good family man, good all-around guy," Jack continued. "He knows what it's like for the little people. He comes from a working-class family and worked his way through college in our textile plants. He gets us, he's not just swooping in here and asking us, oh, vote for me now so I can move on to the next one."

I asked Jack if that "swooping" in, he was referring to Hillary Clinton's campaign. Though husband Bill has been here in the state all week, the candidate herself left after Monday night's debate in Myrtle Beach, stumping in Super Tuesday states like California, Arizona and New Jersey before returning here Thursday.

"It's not just Hillary," Jack replied. "It's the whole lot of 'em. I know they have to make time for Iowa and New Hampshire and whatnot, but that's why I appreciate John Edwards. He knows our state."

After Monday's nasty debate, many wondered if Edwards might see an uptick in support from voters sick of the bickering between frontrunners Clinton and Obama. Edwards himself seized on that message, debuting an ad here that touts him as a representative of the "grown-up wing of the Democratic party." I asked Jack's friend, Briggs, if his decision to support Obama was made before or after the Myrtle Beach showdown, and if he might change his mind before he casts his vote.

"I'm not, never, voting for Hillary, if that's what you're asking," he replied, with a laugh.

"Look, we know they have this big political machine behind them. It has been in place for a long time, too long. It's time for something new, get somebody else in there. We saw what good ol' boys and good ol' pals did for one another in what we got in the White House now," Briggs said of the current Bush administration. "You're gonna be trading one set of backscratchers for another."

Briggs also echoed something I'd heard from another voter his age in New Hampshire earlier this month: drawing a comparison between Obama and John F. Kennedy.  "Yeah, he was a first too, but you know, I don't care much for first this and first that. My wife would love to see a first woman president in her lifetime, but that don't mean she'll vote for Hillary either."

(Both men guffawed heartily at that one. "She's your senator, Miss New York," Jack teased.)

We won't know the winner of this final Democratic primary before Super Tuesday until at least 7pm tonight, when the final South Carolina polls close. But yesterday afternoon there was a clear winner in the battle for the corners of Gervais & Assembly Streets, right outside of the State Capitol grounds.

Around 3:30pm supporters of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns showed up with massive signs, hoping to sway the votes of those driving by. A "Honk for Hillary" versus "We want Barack" war broke out on the sidewalk and on the roadway. A guy in a passing car stuck his head out of a sunroof and whooped cheerleader-style, "Two-thou-sand eight. Ob-a-ma is here to stay!" That sent signs waving frenetically, and inspired a fortissimo chorus of hollers from the sidewalk.

By 5pm, there wasn't a Clinton supporter in sight, and the Obama crowd was still going strong, with all four corners of the intersection, plus the medians, to themselves and their signs, a steady stream of car horns punctuating their cheers.
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