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Democratic South Carolina Debate Preview

When the three Democratic presidential candidates gather tonight for a debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the tension in the room will be palpable.

The days leading up to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (N.Y.) victory in the Nevada caucuses were filled with legal wrangling and allegations of voter disenfranchisement -- calls that only grew louder after the results were announced Saturday evening.

The campaigns of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Clinton held dueling conference calls on Sunday -- blissfully unaware of The Fix's need for a day off to watch football -- to allege dirty tricks in the caucus voting. The Obama campaign said that supporters of Clinton purposely shut the doors of certain caucus sites a half hour early. "It could have had an effect on the vote," said Obama counsel Bob Bauer, according to the Associated Press.

Howard Wolfson, communications director for Clinton, pushed back hard -- arguing that the Obama campaign "engaged in intimidation and strong-arm tactics" against backers of the New York senator. "All the false claims and grasping at straws from the Obama campaign isn't going to change" the fact that Clinton won the caucuses, Wolfson added.

(A sidenote: Both sides know that litigating what happened in Nevada has NO chance of changing the results. But, they also know that, among Democratic base voters, the issue of voter intimidation and voter disenfranchisement is a very powerful one. The ghosts of 2000 in Florida still linger for many within the ranks of the Democratic party. As a result, neither Obama nor Clinton can risk having his or her campaign be seen as tolerating those sorts of tactics for fear of alienating the party base.)

Even as that dispute was simmering, another front in the war opened up with Obama accusing former President Bill Clinton of overstepping his bounds in advocating for his wife. Clinton "has taken his advocacy on behalf of his wife to a level that I think is pretty troubling," Obama told Good Morning America's Robin Roberts.

In New Hampshire and again in Nevada, Bill Clinton emerged as the harder-edged of the duo -- far more willing than his wife to draw harsh and unflattering comparisons between his Hillary and Obama. And, judging from the Clinton campaign's response to Obama's charges, it doesn't seem likely the former President plans to change his tune much over the next week.

Former senator John Edwards jumped into the fray over the weekend, taking a break from drawing contrasts with Clinton to call into question Obama's remarks that former President Ronald Reagan was a change agent for America. "I can't imagine why I, or Barack Obama, would be using Ronald Reagan as an example of change," Edwards told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. "I would never use him as an example of change. I can tell you that."

Given the increased heat between the candidates on the trail -- and the raised stakes heading into South Carolina's Democratic primary on Saturday as well as the nearly two dozen states voting on Feb. 5 -- it seems likely that tonight's debate will be a knock-down, drag-out affair.

That said, conflict in recent debates has been nearly nonexistent with the candidates content to stay close to their own messages and occasionally take a poke at an opponent. The last time Clinton, Obama and Edwards got together in Las Vegas the results was an attempt to "nice these people to death" -- to borrow a phrase.

We'll be covering tonight's debate, which starts at 8 pm on CNN, in this space.

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 21, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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