COLUMBIA, S.C. – Americans might be excused for spending their Saturday night doing something other than watching the first Democratic presidential debate, but not South Carolina Democrats who hope it will revive the party in a Republican stronghold.
Democrats once ruled with an iron fist during their heyday in the Palmetto State. As recently as 1986, Democrats controlled the governor's office, both chambers in the state legislature, all statewide offices and half the congressional delegation.
More than a decade later, Republican strength was never more evident than after last November's election when the GOP claimed control of the state House and Senate, five of the eight congressional seats and seven of the nine statewide offices, including the governorship.
No Democrat has won a presidential race in South Carolina since Georgia's Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, and the chances of the Democratic nominee capturing the state's eight electoral votes next year are somewhere between slim and none.
"We are going to be the minority party for some time," conceded Joe Erwin, a Greenville, S.C., advertising executive and the leading candidate to become the state Democrats' next party chairman.
Consider this bottom line number. In South Carolina, the political parties pay for the presidential primaries, and the statewide primaries last year cost more than $2 million, according to the state's election commission.
As of April 10, the state Democratic Party had $288.93 cash on hand, with about nine months before the Feb. 3 primary.
Unknown is the exact amount of soft money the Democrats have in separate accounts, although state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian says that after covering bills, the party has at least $100,000 with no debt.
"The party's in the black," he said.
The party hopes Saturday's debate will generate the excitement to attract 4,000 volunteers to help run the 2004 election test, the first Democratic presidential primary in the South.
"It's as if the Super Bowl was being held in Columbia," said Harpootlian, who led state Democrats in pushing for the debate and the early primary. The party hopes to raise more than $300,000 at a fund-raising dinner the night before the debate.
The 90-minute face-off involving the nine candidates provides little time for detailed debate, and with no live broadcast at its starting time of 9 p.m., it's unclear how much interest there will be outside South Carolina. ABC News, which is producing the debate, is offering a telecast to its affiliates only after the event's conclusion.
"It's hard to get in a pack of nine and be a standout," said Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C.
Still, the debate and earlier campaign appearances from the candidates represent far more attention than South Carolina got from Democratic hopefuls in 2000. Then, Al Gore paid one visit and Bill Bradley came twice, including a brief stop in which he talked about the Confederate battle flag and then departed.
Those drive-by campaign stops and frustration with the Democratic National Committee angered Harpootlian, who went as far as to tell Bradley, the former New Jersey senator, that he should drop out of the presidential race.
After the election, the quotable Harpootlian found fault with the presidential candidates' strategy. "Gore wrote off the South and lost," he said.
South Carolina Democrats hope that changes next year, at least within the party.
"I anticipate that by the time South Carolina rolls around, there won't be but two or three candidates left and South Carolina could have a dramatic effect," said Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.