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Southern Exposure

Joe Lieberman is sitting in the second pew at the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Charleston, South Carolina. It's the morning after the senator revived his lifeless campaign with a strong performance at the Democratic debate two hours west in Columbia, and about 200 worshipers—mostly black, many on their feet—are singing and clapping to the gospel music of the J.A. Darby Mass Choir, which is belting out a jazzy version of the Christian hymn "Oh, How I Love Jesus."

Senator Lieberman, who is a little rhythmically challenged, occasionally takes a stab at clapping along but each time abandons the effort after disappointing results. As the chorus—Oh, how I love Jesus! Oh, how I love Jesus! Oh, how I love Jesus! Because He first loved me!—builds to a deafening crescendo, the choir's leader steps away from the altar, mike in hand, to do some ad-libbed call and response with the audience. "Do you love Jesus this morning?" she yells. The crowd shouts back their assent. She then turns her attention to Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew who believes that, whatever the differences between the two faiths, his shared religiosity with Southern Christians is key to winning the hearts of church-going blacks here in South Carolina. Crouched halfway to the ground with one hand in the air, the choir leader stands a few feet away, looking the candidate squarely in the face, and demands, "Senator Lieberman, do you love Jesus?" It's unclear whether she's unaware of the senator's religious affiliation or is trying to effect a conversion, but, regardless, it seems that she really wants an answer. With just a nod, Lieberman could pull off the greatest pander in American political history. But he resists the temptation, smiling nervously until the choir leader gives up and moves on.

The temptation for candidates to reinvent themselves is everywhere here in South Carolina. Liberal Massachusetts Senator John Kerry tells an inquiring voter he "would love to" come speak at hyper-conservative Bob Jones University, the anti-Catholic college that until recently banned interracial dating. Antiwar firebrand Howard Dean shows up as the only candidate to speak before a luncheon held by the devoutly centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) on the Saturday of the debate. Dick Gephardt, one of the best friends the labor movement has ever had, is attacked as a corporate toady for his health care plan and responds with a stirring defense of big business. Instead of bashing military spending, radical peacenik Dennis Kucinich channels Ross Perot and talks about Pentagon waste and abuse.

The idea behind moving the South Carolina primary to February 3, just a week after New Hampshire, is to force the Democratic candidates to appeal to more moderate constituencies than the spoiled, racially homogenous lefties in Iowa and New Hampshire who have dominated primary politics for a generation. And the idea behind the nationally televised Democratic debate in Columbia—the earliest such debate ever, timed to coincide with the state party convention—is to make sure that this moderating effect begins sooner rather than later. It seems to be working.

While the Columbia debate itself receives a lot of attention in the press, it's merely the centerpiece of a weekend crammed with campaign events and speeches, most of which go largely unnoticed in the national media. At Friday night's Jefferson-Jackson dinner, for example, party delegates dine to the music of the Dixie Chicks while Gephardt and Kerry work the room and overeager Dean supporters slap stickers on the waitresses. "They were putting them on me, I couldn't say no," says one server when asked why she—along with the entire wait staff here at Seawell's Restaurant—seems to back the former Vermont governor. "Who is Dean? Where's he at?"

Much of the evening is devoted to a tribute to Dick Harpootlian, the beloved outgoing South Carolina party chairman. Like the senior senator from South Carolina, Democrat Fritz Hollings, Harpootlian has a storied reputation for making outlandish remarks and speaking before he thinks. (He once compared Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), to "a ferret on crank"; more infamously, in 2001, he declared then-Representative Lindsey Graham too "light in the loafers" to take over Strom Thurmond's Senate seat and then pled ignorance of the apparent gay innuendo.) So, when Harpootlian begins to retell a story about Kerry and John Edwards that he heard from Hollings, the audience seems to brace itself. When they came for last year's dinner, the three senators—Hollings, Kerry, and Edwards—all spent the night at the governor's mansion, Harpootlian says, but Hollings didn't sleep well. "I said, `Why not?'" Harpootlian continues. "And [Hollings] said, `All night long, Edwards was getting up and going to the bathroom. And then, all night long, Kerry was getting up to dry off.'" After a pause during which the audience tries to figure out the punch line, a wave of uncomfortable groans sweeps the banquet hall.

After dinner, the whole circus of candidates, campaign aides, party regulars, and reporters make their way over to "Congressman Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry." Clyburn, a wildly popular politician here, is the only black representative in South Carolina's congressional delegation, and, ever since the state moved up its primary, his endorsement, which he will announce at the end of the year, has become one of the most sought-after prizes of the preprimary season. That's why the fish-fry gossip mill is abuzz with chatter that Edwards isn't here. "Where is he tonight?" asks Jeff Hubbell, a Palmetto State veterinarian who is carrying a copy of The Almanac of American Politics in which he collects politicians' autographs. "He ought to be here."

When the candidates are invited to share a stage and make short comments, Kerry quickly seizes on the fact that Edwards is AWOL. "Jim Clyburn did us a great favor," he tells the crowd. "Because he said the next president of the United States is here tonight, and I notice there are only about five candidates here. So he already eliminated a quarter of our opponents." But, as it later turns out, Edwards was here. His campaign aides decided that, as the favorite son—he was born in South Carolina—he would use this weekend to try and separate himself from the rest of the pack. So Edwards arrived at the fish fry before the other candidates, stayed for an hour, and then left before he would have to share the stage with the others. Throughout the weekend, an unresolved debate will rage over whether or not Clyburn was offended.

The second piece of fish-fry gossip also comes during Kerry's remarks. For weeks, Dean, Kerry's nemesis and rival for the top spot in the New Hampshire primary, has been using a line uttered by Bill Clinton in the wake of the Democratic losses of 2002: "When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody that's strong and wrong than somebody who's weak and right." With Dean standing behind him, Kerry suddenly feels the urge to summon Clinton's line for his own use. Slowly, haltingly, he tells the crowd, "President Clinton said a few days ago that 2002 proved that you can be right and weak and lose. And you can be right and wrong and lose." As Dean observes Kerry struggling through the sentence, he flashes a priceless look of sarcasm, rolling his eyes left and right before lifting his eyebrows skyward. Once the candidates finish their speeches, Clyburn steps up to the mike a little impatiently and announces, "Let's have a party." With that, the music starts, and everyone on the dance floor breaks into the electric slide.

Kerry's mangling of the Clinton quote was not exactly a high note for his campaign. Nor was his performance in Saturday's debate, in which he was widely seen as spending too much time sniping back and forth with Dean. But these two episodes aside, Kerry had a good overall weekend in South Carolina, where there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm for his campaign. He received the warmest cheers from the revelers at the fish fry. The next day, at the state party's convention, Kerry won the best response from the delegates of any of the major candidates. It's hard to pinpoint the exact source of Kerry's strength, but his trips to the state, which is rich in veterans and military bases, usually place a huge emphasis on his Vietnam service. On Friday, for instance, Kerry spoke before the South Carolina Combat Veterans Group for a wreath-laying ceremony to honor Vietnam Survivors Day. And the more that local Democrats here fear the general election will be dominated by imagery of President Bush dressed as G.I. Joe and armed with a $250 million campaign account, the more they seem willing to buy the Kerry campaign's argument that his combat experience and wealth make him their best shot. As one local woman explained to a group of undecided party regulars at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, "He's got a military background.He's got a rich wife."

Moreover, Kerry's not as bad a retail politician as his reputation for being aloof and out of touch suggests. (It's the flip side of Edwards's mythical ability to tap into the soul of every person he meets, a reputation that vastly overrates his retail politicking skills.) On the afternoon before the Saturday debate, most of the candidates attend a meet-and-greet session for reporters and voters at the state fairgrounds. Inside one building, the candidates are sectioned off into little pen-like areas divided with blue curtains, a setup that allows the curious to wander around and do side-by-side comparisons. It's an opportunity to poke and prod the livestock before the cattle call tonight.

During the meet-and-greet, Kerry looks comfortable mixing it up with people, not strained or self-conscious. A woman makes a big deal of wrapping her arms around him, and Kerry beams, "That's what I love about South Carolina. In Massachusetts, you have to work hard for a hug." One woman actually walks away with tears in her eyes after Kerry takes her hands and tells her about both his military service in and his opposition to the Vietnam War. There are also a couple of great moments of spontaneity.One woman asks Kerry about an article she read in Boston Magazine that questioned the senator's consistency on the issues. Kerry tells her not to believe it before bending down to whisper in her ear a secret about the article's author: "His name is Jon Keller, and he and I have had a feud for years." Another woman has an even more provocative question: Would the senator come speak at Bob Jones University? "I would love to," Kerry tells her without missing a beat. When I ask her why she wants Kerry to visit, the woman replies, "I just think it's time for Democrats to come across as Christian." (Asked later about the exchange, Kerry press secretary Robert Gibbs says in an e-mail, "Senator Kerry would love to speak at Bob Jones, challenge the university, and tell them everything that George Bush did not have the courage to say in 2000 about views that clearly have no place in our society.")

But whatever flashes of wit and strength Kerry showed with voters throughout the weekend were gone by Saturday night's debate. Kerry looked tired and overprogrammed, his head crammed with the opposition research he used to attack Dean, and his voice cracked from overuse. "Maybe if he rested on the Sabbath like his grandfather, he wouldn't have had such a hoarse voice," a Lieberman aide joked. But, even if Kerry's decision to attack rather than ignore Dean knocked the supposed front-runner down a few notches in stature, in the end it may not have been as unwise a tactic as most of the postdebate analysis suggests. Certainly, during the debate, Kerry looked petty and slightly desperate when he threw out statistics to make the point that the number of insured in Vermont had actually dropped by one-tenth of a percent during Dean's twelve-year gubernatorial tenure. The Dean campaign, repeatedly forced to respond to the charge after the debate, cried foul and mustered its own stats showing the number of insured actually rose during Dean's terms in office, from 87 to 91 percent—an important and positive change no doubt but not exactly the kind of quantum leap forward that the self-described health care candidate often brags about on the campaign trail.

Before the debate, Dean spent much of the weekend talking about how he intends to win in the South. When discussing this strategy among liberal Northerners, Dean often says he wants to win over Southerners "who drive pickup trucks with Confederate-flag decals" by appealing to them on economic issues. But I didn't hear him utter that line once in South Carolina. It's not clear whether he was worried about offending black voters or, as an aide to a rival campaign argues, concerned about demeaning Southern whites. Either way, it's clear that Dean's cutting arrogance remains his Achilles' heel. When that arrogance is channeled into anger, it serves as the source of his strength on the stump, as it did during a fiery four-minute presentation at the fish fry that was warmly received.

But, without a rapt audience to feed off of, Dean has a tendency to come across as, well, mean. During remarks at the DLC luncheon on the afternoon before the debate, an audience member applauds a Dean line about how Republicans always inject race into elections. The man is obviously expressing agreement with Dean's statement, rather than support for the GOP's racial tactics, but Dean seems angered nonetheless. "I wouldn't clap for that," he says caustically, glaring at the man, "because the way they do it is not very nice. The way they do it is phone calls three days before the election, [and by] having guys intimidate people from going to the polls." The man, looking a little embarrassed, raises his palms as if to say, "Back off, I didn't mean it that way."

It's hard to imagine Edwards ever provoking such a chastened response. The foundation of the North Carolina senator's candidacy is that "he connects with voters," in the oft-repeated words of his aides. Indeed, the extent to which the Edwards campaign believes that his likeability, personal charm, and talent for retail politics will carry him to victory can't be overstated. "I would argue that [likeability] is the only thing that matters," a senior Edwards adviser recently told me.

At the candidate meet-and-greet, Edwards introduces himself to prospective voters in an exaggerated sing-song: "How ... are ... you? ... Nice ... to ... see ... you." When he looks folks in the eye, his tanned face and penetrating blue eyes have such intensity that, as often as not, people can't help but look away. Unlike the other candidates, he seems slightly distant throughout the weekend. Just as he separated himself from the pack at the fish fry, he broke away from the field at the debate. His aides say his goal was to come out of the weekend strongly branded as the anti-big-business populist. His foil to accomplish this was Gephardt's health care plan, which Edwards savaged, suggesting its slogan should be "You're in good hands with Enron." Edwards came out so hard against Gephardt's plan that even Dean—who's competing with Gephardt to be seen as the race's health care candidate—seemed genuinely stunned. When asked his opinion of the plan, Dean had to admit, "Actually, I don't think it's quite as bad as John Edwards said. I was pretty shocked at some of that. It's not taking money out of working people." Later, Edwards aides argued that the night marked the beginning of the end for Gephardt's plan.

It's not at all clear that's true, but, if it were, it would likely mean the end of Gephardt's candidacy as well. For, if Edwards is the candidate of Personality, Gephardt is trying to make himself the candidate of Ideas—and his health care plan is the biggest idea he has to offer. Edwards wants you to like him first. He can talk to you about policy later. For Gephardt, it is the opposite. He doesn't need to get to know you, indeed he might be happier not to. He just wants you to hear the details of his latest policy proposal. At his stall at the meet-and-greet, he uses his health care plan like a shield. Unlike the other candidates, who stand surrounded by voters and reporters, Gephardt stands behind a folding table piled with thick pamphlets explaining the intricacies of his plan to bring health insurance to virtually all Americans. Faced with almost any question, Gephardt—who has a reputation for being what political consultants admiringly call "a disciplined candidate"—manages to respond with an almost rote recitation of his health care stump lines. When a disabled veteran approaches and complains about the lack of help he gets from Washington, Gephardt spends little time empathizing. Instead, he launches into an explanation of what his plan would do for cash-strapped states that are cutting benefits and services to deal with budget deficits.

Gephardt's policy-first strategy is a dull one, but it is not without opportunities to score points at his opponents' expenses. After Edwards's peculiar effort to cast him as a corporate stooge during the debate, Gephardt was only too happy to play up the style-versus-substance subtext. "I beg to differ with [Edwards's] characterization of all corporations as Enron. They aren't," he told me after the debate. He then proceeded to give his rival a sharp elbow: "Maybe he would read the plan. That might help."

By the end of the South Carolina weekend, in addition to the Kerry/Dean and Edwards/Gephardt feuds, a third rivalry was emerging: Graham/ Lieberman. Bob Graham remained an oddity here all weekend. The only thing most people seem to have heard about him is his famed habit of writing down every detail of his life in pocket notebooks, a fact that is a never-ending source of jokes among rival campaign staffs. At one point, a bevy of aides from various campaigns play a BlackBerry-transmitted game of "fun things to ask Bob Graham," producing a hilarious—and mostly unprintable—string of queries, including, "Check all your pockets, and then turn and ask him if he has a pen and pad on him you can borrow." Graham's official kickoff tour won't come until a few days after the debate, and so the Florida senator has a low-key presence here. On Saturday morning, while some dozen reporters shout questions at Kerry during a breakfast with local supporters, Graham sits anonymously a few tables away and quietly takes notes while dining with Harpootlian. At the party convention, Graham has few volunteers or supporters in sight. When they are called to the podium, each candidate organizes their own little show of support using loud, sign-waving twenty-somethings. When Graham speaks, a handful of his senior consultants silently hold signs above their heads. Graham has an explanation for this minimalist presence. "We can close the gap in terms of organization and fund-raising," he tells me after the debate. "They cannot close the gap in terms of maturity and experience and demonstrated executive leadership." The simple argument that the centrist former governor makes is summed up by the line with which he closes his speeches: "My name is Bob Graham. I come from the electable wing of the Democratic Party."

Unfortunately for Graham, it's Lieberman, whose campaign sees Graham as a threat to its centrist niche in the primaries, who best makes the electability argument this particular weekend. Until now, Lieberman has failed every key primary test to date. Although he talked about running for president throughout 2002, his campaign team has seemed disorganized and tractionless since he announced his candidacy. While he brags in his recent book that he "broke fund-raising records" for the DNC after joining the ticket in 2000, he came in fourth among the six major candidates during the money race of the first quarter of the year, raising only a little more cash than Dean—and burning through it at a higher rate than any other campaign. As his communications team tinkered with his message, he flitted from cattle call to cattle call, generating little enthusiasm.

Before the debate takes place, there is little indication that his performance this weekend will be any different. Lieberman's weekend is the opposite of Kerry's: a lackluster two days of events on the ground capped by a powerful showing when it really mattered at the debate. Absent from the state party convention because he is observing the Sabbath, Lieberman sends a video address instead. His onscreen delivery is dull and senatorial, weirdly out of context during an afternoon of red-meat speeches by flesh-and-blood candidates. "I was sitting there watching that video, and I thought, this is like something from `Saturday Night Live,'" Richard Cain, a 53-year-old Democrat, tells me later. As Lieberman's taped address plays, many delegates talk loudly; others walk over to shake hands with Edwards, who has just climbed down from the stage. "If we were a nonentity in [the debate], it would have been a nail in the coffin," says a Lieberman aide.

But he's not, and it isn't. Unencumbered by the kind of left-liberal audience he's seen so far, Lieberman uses the debate to return to a version of the "left-right" strategy that pollster Stan Greenberg designed for him when he unseated Lowell Weicker as Connecticut senator in 1988, attacking Weicker from the left on the environment and consumer protection and from the right on crime and foreign policy. After the debate, other campaigns will argue that, while Lieberman shined, he defined himself as too far right to win the Democratic nomination. Lieberman aides argue that his positioning is more nuanced than that. "He's not running as a New Democrat," says one. "He's running as Joe Lieberman. He's redefining that [centrist] space." During the debate, for instance, Lieberman attacks Gephardt's health plan from the right as "big spending" and from the left as a drain on resources for education, Medicare, Social Security, and medical research. He criticizes protectionist opposition to free trade but also promises to lead a revival of the nation's manufacturing sector and force the federal government to buy American-made goods. On the war he slams Kerry for his "ambivalence" but also draws a sharp distinction with Bush, condemning preemptive or preventive war—a cornerstone of the Bush doctrine—as a declaratory policy of the United States.

Thanks to his showing, Lieberman looks, for the first time this year, like a contender. "We had our first piece of positive momentum—and the key is, can we turn it into a roll?" asks one adviser. On his way out of the postdebate spin room, a smiling and swaggering Lieberman ends a brief interview with me by shouting into my recorder a greeting to a mutual friend, "Shavua Tov." It's a Hebrew expression uttered after the Sabbath that means, "Have a good week." Joe Lieberman has finally had one himself.

This article appeared in the May 19, 2003, issue of the magazine.