Once every four years, York County plays host to a string of campaign buses and the horde of media that follow, recording what candidates say and do as they vie for their party's presidential nominations.
At Winthrop University Thursday morning, three political journalists gathered to discuss just how much that media spotlight affects the races as they unfold and how that coverage has evolved.
Chuck Todd, NBC's chief White House correspondent, Steve Brusk, CNN's political coverage manager; and Steve Brook, managing editor of The State newspaper in Columbia, spoke just two days before South Carolina voters head to the polls to help nominate a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama.
Earlier Thursday morning, Todd hosted his political talk show, MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown," from Scholar's Walk at Winthrop and announced the most recent big news in the race - Texas Gov. Rick Perry was bowing out.
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A few hours later, as the panel was sitting down, news broke that Perry would endorse former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Todd jokingly complained about having to go an hour without checking his Twitter - his preferred source for news.
Later, following the panel discussion, Todd shared an analysis of what Perry's exit means for South Carolina's primary.
"The wild card here is (former U.S. Sen. Rick) Santorum," Todd said. "What is his number? The closer it gets to 20 (percent), the better it is for (former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt) Romney...and the closer it gets to 10, the better it is for Gingrich."
"We know that there's a ceiling here for Romney. It's one of the few places where his ceiling is a little bit lower probably than Newt's...simply if Newt is portrayed as the conservative candidate versus Romney."
Much of the panel's focus was on how the speed information travels - and the technology that makes it possible - have affected how news is reported.
It has improved campaign coverage, Brusk said.
The public has always seen the key moments of campaigns, he said - the organized events and speeches that satellite trucks and correspondents cover.
But this year for the first time, Brusk said, reporters embedded in the campaigns are all equipped with smaller, higher-quality cameras, computers and the ability to send news content through cell phone signals.
That technology allows reporters "to bring the smaller moments, the things that are really the fabric of the campaign to people in real time."
That allows other reporters to do more digging into the issues of the campaigns, Brusk said, and together, that makes for better coverage.
With campaigns and news outlets taking advantage of the Internet, "there are literally a thousand different ways at every moment to get exposed to the campaign."
The saturation of information means "there's almost nothing we don't know about," Brusk said.
The idea that the next deadline is "now" could lead to "burnout" for news gatherers and consumers inundated with an endless flow of information.
The frequency of nationally televised debates - about two dozen, by some counts - has been another problem this campaign season, said Todd, who would rather the candidates have one a debate month, giving them more time to focus on campaigning locally.
Brusk wondered how Perry's campaign might have fared without so many debates, which were not his strong suit.
Shaping the debate
The role of big money and entertainers in shaping the political debate also came under fire.
Todd criticized political satirist Stephen Colbert, who portrays a pompous conservative TV commentator on his Comedy Central show "The Colbert Report."
He argued that Colbert is "making a mockery of the system" - conceding that maybe the system deserves some ridicule.
But Todd raised the question of whether Colbert's treatment of the political process is fair.
"He seems to be doing his best to marginalize Republican candidates," Todd said, cautioning the "mainstream media" to be careful of how they cover Colbert, who frequently tries to get involved in the political process.
He started a "super PAC," has offered to pay South Carolina Republicans for the naming rights to Saturday's primary and to add a question to the ballot about whether corporations were people, and has toyed with running for president.
"I worry that we're going to trivialize our institutions and make people more cynical" by "over-parodizing" the political process, Todd said.
During a Q&A session, one man asked the panel how all the advertising money flowing into the media from campaigns impacts what angles they take.
"How can the general public believe anything they hear..if (there are billions of dollars) going into telling us what to think?" the man asked.
The panelists assured the audience that the financial side of the media doesn't influence stories. Brook, The State's managing editor, dismissed the notion of a media conspiracy.
"What they didn't touch on was how very prominent media personalities become actors in and of themselves," said Karen Kedrowski, chairwoman of Winthrop's political science department.
Chuck Todd is in that category, she said, where "the kind of questions that they ask or the people they interview make news independently of what the candidates might be doing otherwise.
"And that element, that the reporters in fact can be political actors, was...missing from the conversation today."
But they did provide some insight into Saturday's primary and what different outcomes could mean for changing the state's national importance as a bellwether for picking the GOP nominee.
"The fear of the (S.C. Republican) Party is that they lose the firewall status of being the place that resurrects the establishment," Brook said. If Romney takes the nomination and loses in November, Brook said, there's going to be a faction of the party that says the same thing happened in 2008 with another establishment candidate, John McCain, and "there will be a night of the long knives" - a reference to Adolph Hitler's bloody internal purge of his opponents from the German Nazi party in 1934.
"What will be fascinating will be the role that Jim DeMint and some of his purists play in purging the Republican Party," Brook said. They'll argue that "moderation has been proven to fail."