COLUMBIA, S.C. – Democratic presidential hopefuls who survive New Hampshire will barely have time to catch their breath as they sprint toward an intimidating seven-state challenge in exactly one week.
The new round of contests — including the first primaries in the South and the West — could sharply winnow the field. Or it could sow further confusion in a season filled with surprises.
Arizona, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Carolina have Democratic contests on Feb. 3.
"If John Kerry should win New Hampshire by a good margin, come south and win South Carolina, he will be difficult to stop," said Don Fowler, former chairman of the Democratic Party and longtime South Carolina resident.
"On the other hand, if (Howard) Dean should win in New Hampshire or come very close to Kerry, he would regain some of his lost momentum" nationally, if not in South Carolina, Fowler said.
Meanwhile, favorite son John Edwards (search), the senator from North Carolina, is well positioned to win here, especially with a respectable finish in New Hampshire, Fowler said.
The cash-strapped candidates are making decisions on the fly about where to compete next — and how hard. In Dean's camp, there is a divide between those who want to play in all seven states and others who want to pick a few, saving cash for later in February and March. Dean's instincts are to play everywhere, said an official familiar with the discussions.
Some advisers are urging him to skip South Carolina and concentrate his resources elsewhere. Dean has raised more than $1.5 million on the Internet since Iowa's caucuses, said two senior advisers on condition of anonymity, but his bankroll is not unlimited.
South Carolina gets most of the attention, but there are other key races to watch next week.
Missouri surged in importance when Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) of St. Louis withdrew after finishing fourth in Iowa. The state had been ignored because of Gephardt's assumed lock on its 74 delegates, the most of the seven states voting next Tuesday.
"Missouri is now very much in play," said Democratic Gov. Bob Holden, who had backed Gephardt.
Kerry and Edwards plan stops in Missouri this week.
Arizona, with 72 delegates, is the first Western state to vote. Its primary was moved up from March by Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano.
"I wanted us to play a bigger role," Napolitano said. "We have a very diverse population ethnically, and we have the potential to be a true battleground state in the fall."
Underscoring the state's battleground status, both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney visited Arizona this month.
It's also the first state where no candidate has a home-field advantage, said Paul Hegarty, executive director of the Arizona Democratic party. "It's the true first wide-open contest," he said.
Arizona is also home to many veterans, as are Oklahoma and South Carolina — a bloc that Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe, is courting aggressively.
Oklahoma could be difficult territory for northeasterners Kerry and Dean, but is fertile ground for Clark and Edwards, said Gary Copeland, director of the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma.
"It is also a state where Joe Lieberman could do well," said Copeland. Lieberman has family in Oklahoma, including a sister in Norman, and has spent much time there.
Clark leads in Oklahoma and is competitive with Kerry in Arizona, while Edwards appears to have a slight edge in South Carolina, according to polls in states with Feb. 3 contests.
Some 269 delegates are at stake in the seven races, more than 10 percent of the 2,162 needed for nomination.
Edwards and Clark are each portraying themselves as the only candidate who can beat Bush in the South, making the South Carolina race a crucial test. Edwards was born in the state.
Blacks make up nearly 30 percent of the population and could make up half of those voting in the primary. Al Sharpton has campaigned here frequently, and polls show him bunched near the top with Edwards, Clark and Kerry.
The South Carolina primary will also be important in gauging whether the three New Englanders — Kerry of Massachusetts, Dean of Vermont and Lieberman of Connecticut — can find traction beyond New Hampshire.
Kerry, if he does well in New Hampshire, might want to focus on Missouri and Arizona "and let Edwards and Clark slug it out in South Carolina," said Rice University political scientist Earl Black.
But James Dukes, Kerry's South Carolina director, said Kerry "definitely intends to fight hard" in South Carolina.
Edwards' surprising second-place finish in Iowa, and his rise from the back of the pack in New Hampshire has given his campaign important momentum.
"At this point, any good news coming out of New Hampshire is gravy," said Jenni Engebretsen, Edwards' South Carolina spokeswoman.