Front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed her military-tough answer in Thursday's debate as she sought to draw a distinction with top foe Sen. Barack Obama. John Edwards challenged his former Senate colleagues to stand up to President Bush on the Iraq war.
The stakes were clear to all eight Democrats vying for the nomination.
South Carolina holds its Democratic primary on Jan. 29 and the winner would have critical momentum heading into the Feb. 5 mega-primary, when multiple states including California, New York and New Jersey cast ballots.
Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, leads in polls in the first caucus state of Iowa and Clinton is ahead in the first primary state of New Hampshire. Absent recent reliable polling in South Carolina, the candidates seized on a day of nonstop campaigning to build support.
Obama, who held a town-hall meeting in Charleston, S.C., has natural appeal in a state where nearly 50 percent of the state's Democratic primary voters were black. Clinton wasn't about to cede him that voting bloc.
The New York senator stopped at the home of octogenarian Helen Jackson, mother of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, and invited a photographer for the local newspaper. The younger Jackson is backing Obama.
Throughout her campaign swing Clinton mentioned her husband, former President Clinton, whom black voters widely embraced during his tenure.
Clinton, in an effort to burnish her national security credentials, also reminded voters about her debate answer on how she would respond to a terrorist attack by al-Qaida. She said she would retaliate. Obama, facing a similar question, never said anything about retaliation.
"I said that as president, any president, would have to respond as swiftly as is prudent," she said during a town hall meeting in Greenville, S.C., one of the state's conservative strongholds. "We would retaliate because the United States must defend our interests, our people and our country."
In Charleston, S.C., Edwards called on his rivals to stand up to Bush when, as expected, he vetoes legislation that would begin a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
"We had a bunch of members of the United States Congress on stage. What are they going to do?" Edwards said of his former Senate colleagues. "They should not back down from this president because this is not about politics. It's about life and death and war."
Without mentioning names, the former North Carolina senator also took swipe at Obama, who tried to explain his health care plan within the 60-second limit for answers.
"It's not enough to say we need universal health care and two or three broad generalities. That's not a specific health care plan," Edwards said.
Obama subtly reminded his town-hall audience that he opposed the Iraq war while his rivals, including Edwards and Clinton, voted for it.
"We have a war that should have never been authorized, should have never been waged," he said, drawing loud applause.
Edward, the winner of the 2004 South Carolina primary, argued that the 2008 Democratic race boils down to Clinton, Obama and himself. "At this point, it's a just a function of how much publicity everybody is getting," Edwards said. "I think it's a three-person, very competitive race." Not so, said Sen. Chris Dodd. "I'm going to be the nominee of the party. I'm going to be the president of the United States," the Connecticut lawmaker said. "It's going to be almost 10 months before people in South Carolina cast a ballot." At a $200,000 state party fundraising dinner Friday night, candidates walked through the hall with their entourages to drum up support among the 1,000 attendees. Clinton's campaign set up a full-size front door and porch to create a vision of what could come if she wins - it was painted white and had a sign that said "Madam President" and the 1600 street address of the White House. Edwards entered with a small band of supporters around him waving signs over their heads and chanting "Let's go Edwards!" like cheerleaders. But the real one-upmanship came as they ended the night at Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn's fish fry in a parking garage that was wall-to-wall people. The crowd yelped and surged toward Obama when he walked in, then Clinton entered with a gaggle of sign-holders to draw attention. Edwards made his way through the crowd followed by a mini-band, then they all worked their way to a stage along with Dodd, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Obama stepped in front of Clinton with a plate of fried white fish and took a big bite to wild cheers from the crowd. The large turnout was the rule for the day. Clinton spoke before a packed recreational center at the Allen Temple A.M.E. Church. Chris Bragg, a 44-year-old human resources worker from Charleston, was one of hundreds of people who lined up more than an hour before Obama spoke at a school in her hometown. "I don't know too much about him," she said, but added that she had narrowed her choice to either Obama or Clinton. Andrew Arnold, an attorney and chairman of the Greenville County Democratic Party, said he is trying to decide between Clinton, Obama and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden. On Friday, he praised Clinton, saying she was the clear winner of the debate. "She came to the front line in the culture wars," Arnold said, saying local Democrats are fighting for public education and reproductive rights. Clinton got a taste of that battle when her last question came from a student who said she considered abortion to be murder. Clinton explained that in the "tradition in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence," a fetus is not considered a person until the mother gives birth. She said although she favors abortion rights, she does not support abortion personally. "I believe abortion should be safe, legal and rare. Bill and I have been saying that for years," she said. (AP) Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Charleston, S.C., contributed to this report. AP-CS-04-27-07 2254EDT