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Sweet column: South Carolina vote test of southern clout. Will race be a factor?

COLUMBIA, S.C.The South Carolina Democratic presidential primary Saturday is the first test of the clout of a southern state in determining who the nominee is and the first contest where race has been a major factor.

It is also the place where Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was exposed to the full firepower of the whole Clinton package Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), an aggressive former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea, stepping out more than she did in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

They are tough, Obama said Thursday, speaking about the Clintons. At a debate in Myrtle Beach earlier in the week, he said he wasnt sure which Clinton he was running against. He called the Clinton operation a tough, well-honed political machine built up over the course of 20 years. We have always been the underdogs in this campaign. We have always been the outsiders, the insurgent campaign. And people have forgotten that, I think.

But no matter who the winner is, Clinton and Obama leave the Palmetto State bloodied by their boxing here as they start campaigning in what amounts to a 22-state national primary and caucus vote Feb. 5. Then its back to D.C. Hillary Clinton will be in Nashville on Saturday night, and the former president will be in Independence, Mo. On Sunday, Obama hits Macon, Ga., and then Birmingham, Ala., while Michelle Obama continues on the campaign trail as the contest sprawls from coast to coast.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who have scarcely been in the Capitol since last year, return to Washington on Monday to listen to President Bushs last State of the Union address and perhaps imagine themselves standing in the well of the House of Representatives laying out their agenda a year from now.

South Carolina native son and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who found it hard to get attention here a state he won in 2004 will leave having largely stayed above the fray and facing a massive financial challenge. Obama goal: Show Iowa no fluke South Carolina is the fourth and final early-state vote in the revamped Democratic schedule crafted to dilute the influence of New Hampshire and Iowa with small minority populations in the nominating process.

Last Saturday, Nevada was the first western state to have a say in a caucus in which union members and Hispanics flexed their political muscle.

African Americans are one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies, and South Carolina was given the primary in appreciation of its importance to the party long before Obama emerged as the first viable African-American presidential contender. At least half of the vote is expected to be black.

If Obama is to win South Carolina, his team very much wants it with the votes of blacks and whites, to demonstrate the strength of his appeal and to show that Iowa was not a fluke. Obama won Iowa with caucus votes across the state. Clintons New Hampshire win seemed to be devalued because it came with the help of female voters who may have been influenced by Clinton misting up at the end. Nevada handed Clinton a decisive win in the popular vote while Obama took more delegates, 13 to her 12.