By Samantha Hayes in Myrtle Beach, SC
The high in Myrtle Beach today is 46 degrees, and it's windy. It's cold in the state's capital, Columbia, too, where the top three Democratic candidates spent the afternoon delivering speeches ahead of tonight's debate.
Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards were all bundled up and their voices sounded strained after long days on the campaign trail. Their tone, however, was warm. The candidates complemented each other's achievements and honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the day set aside to honor the civil rights leader.
The tone could change tonight when the three take the stage in a debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and CNN in Myrtle Beach. It's one of the last opportunities to influence voters in South Carolina before they head to the polls this weekend.
Before getting situated at the Palace Theatre, where the debate will take place this evening, I decided to take an unscientific approach to taking the pulse of voters in the Low Country.
January is an interesting time to be in a vacation town. As I drove onto the main drag, it was not surprising to see empty parking lots at the golf courses, closed surf shops, and empty streets. I noticed only a couple of brave souls dressed in heavy coats and scarves walking down the beach.
So in my search for local folks I stopped at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store and asked Betty at the check-out counter if she was planning on watching the debate tonight.
"Probably not. There have just been so many ads on the TV. 'I approve this, I approve that.' I'm just sick of it all already."
A man standing behind me piped up when he heard us discussing the onslaught of campaign commercials.
"I'm for Hillary. I just think she has more experience than Obama."
"I don't know about Obama," another man checking out in the aisle next to me said.
"Isn't he a Muslim?"
"No," I replied, and I told him that on Obama says he is a Christian and attend the United Church of Christ.
"Well, his name just sounds like...well you know."
This conversation reminds me that people in general are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, and with a woman and an African-American vying for front-runner status in the Democratic nomination process, voters have to confront their own feelings about race, gender, and -- in some cases -- religion.
At the nearby donut shop, I asked Anthony, an African-American man, his feelings about Clinton and Obama and their efforts to win support from black voters.
Anthony smiled and said, "I'm paying attention to the issues and right now I'm leaning toward John Edwards. Health care is really important to me. And he talks about fighting for the middle class that would really help me out."
He says he'll be watching the debate tonight to get a better feel for the candidates before this weekend's vote.
There is another element to the upcoming Democratic primary that can't be dismissed. One of the candidates is from Seneca, South Carolina. And understanding the issues important to people in this Southern state counts for a lot.
"I also like that Edwards is from South Carolina, a local boy," Anthony pointed out.