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HRC Taking a Pass on S.C.?

Thus far each of the Big 3 candidates for the Democratic nomination -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards -- have competed all-out for wins in the early primary states.

But, heading into South Carolina's primary vote this Saturday, there is an ongoing debate about whether Clinton is seeking to purposely downplay her chances -- and the overall importance of the Palmetto State -- as she focuses more heavily on the 24 states set to vote on Feb. 5.

After last night's gathering in Myrtle Beach, Clinton made a series of stops in Feb. 5 states. She returns to South Carolina on Thursday and will spend Friday and Saturday in the state. Former President Bill Clinton will spend the entire week there.

Asked about how South Carolina fit into the campaign's larger plans, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson noted that Obama carries a "double digit lead" in polling.

"Despite that we are going to work hard for every vote," Wolfson said.

Wolfson also argued that Clinton's schedule this week -- including stops in Arizona, California and New York -- reflected the practical reality of trying to reach as many voters as possible between now and Feb. 5. "This is a race for delegates," he said.

Obama himself seemed to suggest in an interview yesterday that Clinton was snubbing South Carolina with her schedule.

"I think the South Carolina voters will have to make an assessment in terms of how seriously she's taking the state," Obama told Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. "She said last night that Bill Clinton wasn't the one running for president but this is the next primary and he's the one who's staying behind."

Those comments seem aimed at scoring political points with South Carolina voters who value the prominence of the state in the nominating process and want the same sort of attention that states like Iowa and New Hampshire received.

Several of Obama's surrogates in the state suggest that Clinton is actually pulling out all the stops -- regardless of what she and her campaign say publicly.

Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party and an Obama backer, insists the Clinton campaign is "not ceding anything."

Harpootlian, never short on quotable lines, said the Clintons' S.C. strategy is "typical Clinton sleight of hand," adding: "When they get their brains beat out here on Saturday they will be able to say they didn't really try here."

Former South Carolina governor Jim Hodges (D), another Obama backer, said there is little question in his mind that Clinton is "trying to lower expectations and at the same time campaign aggressively." He called the Clinton approach to South Carolina "an insurance policy against failure" and predicted: "This is going to be a hard fought campaign here."

As always -- or almost always -- in politics, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Clinton has to walk a delicate line in South Carolina. The state will be very difficult for her to win given that its significant black community seems to be coalescing around Obama. Clinton therefore has to "manage" -- i.e. lower -- expectations, then work hard to outperform them. This will help reduce any boost Obama would get from a win in S.C. and make Clinton stronger as the race moves on to the Feb. 5 states. But Clinton must also guard against giving the impression that she has totally written South Carolina off, which could could give voters who feel slighted a reason to reward Obama with an even larger margin of victory.

Ah, politics!

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 23, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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