In shopping mall America, the best way to orient oneself is to search out the red X indicating, "You Are Here."
For the next three weeks, South Carolina will wear the X for presidential candidates still standing.
The New Hampshire primary is three days hence, but results of the Iowa caucuses guarantee that the Palmetto State will be center stage most of January.
If so, we better enjoy the attention; this could be our last hurrah.
The Jan. 26 S.C. Democratic primary might be the most important of that party's early primaries. Because neither Iowa, New Hampshire nor Nevada has a statistically significant population of African-Americans, South Carolina could end up providing the key to victory -- or defeat -- for Democratic candidates.
John Edwards, born in Seneca, won the Democratic primary here four years ago and came in second in Iowa last week. Given that he campaigned heavily in the Corn Belt state for two years or more and that he's running behind Obama and Clinton in South Carolina polls, Edwards desperately needs a strong showing here.
Hillary Clinton finished a disappointing third in Iowa, but she could overcome that setback in New Hampshire. Early on, Iowa wasn't considered a good state for her. If Obama energizes first-time activists in South Carolina the way he did in Iowa, Clinton might wish she had skipped this state's Democratic primary.
Ever since Ronald Reagan rode Strom Thurmond's coattails to knock John Connally out of contention in 1980, state Republicans have relished their kingmaker role. Assuming the major players are still in the game Jan. 19, the date of the GOP primary, what happens here could prove critical.
Mike Huckabee isn't expected to do well in New Hampshire, where evangelical influence is relatively slight; Mitt Romney ought to win. In either case, South Carolina could settle Romney's bacon. The notion that this country might elect Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and an ordained Baptist minister, seemed far-fetched a year ago. State GOP leaders put their money on other horses. Early on, many big shots supported John McCain, with Romney picking up most of the rest, including Gov. Mark Sanford.
McCain is the sort of ruggedly independent conservative South Carolinians traditionally back. We are a love-it-or-leave-it state, and McCain's military record and support of the war in Iraq appeal to many. Nevertheless, some South Carolinians can't forgive him for stances he took on the Rebel flag, Bob Jones University and immigration.
So if South Carolina is such a hot ticket in 2008, why is this year likely to be the high-water mark for both parties?
For one, we have to see what happens to Rudy Giuliani in the GOP primaries in Florida (Jan. 29) and such mega-states as California and New York (Feb. 5). He wrote off early primaries, knowing he was seen as too liberal for voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But as Romney, Huckabee and McCain cut each other up in coming days, Rudy might emerge as the favorite of moderate Republicans. If he wins the nomination, candidates might follow his lead and cross early-primary states off their itinerary.
Mainly, pressure by states to front-load the primary process continues to build. Even if the national parties can hold off attempts by other states to set primaries, the continued telescoping works against smaller states.
Heretofore, a poor showing in the earliest primaries has been seen as fatal. In the future, it might be a mere speed bump in the road to the White House.
So, let's enjoy the attention while it lasts.
Candidates, for the next three weeks, South Carolina has the big red X.
You are here!