Months to go Stories to watch

In roughly six months, S.C. voters will go to the polls in the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries, which will play a role in deciding each party's nominee for the November 2008 election to succeed President Bush.

S.C. Democrats are scheduled to vote Jan. 29, and Republicans also will vote about that time. (The GOP is expected to set a primary date some time next month.) So, with six months to go, six story lines worth watching:

Will Clinton vs. Obama get nasty?

It looks like it. Here's why. For everything U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has done well, he's still consistently polling behind U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. Obama must put doubts in the minds of Democratic voters about Clinton if he wants to win. In last week's Charleston debate, for instance, he again attacked Clinton on her vote to authorize the Iraq war. Clinton's counterpunch was to portray Obama's willingness to meet with dictators -- such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez -- as naive. The exchange resulted in a week's worth of sniping.

Will Thompson enter the race?

A month ago, the answer was yes. Most thought former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson would enter the race with loads of momentum. Today, the Tennessee Republican's candidacy doesn't look like such a sure bet. He lags in fundraising; also, building a campaign machine has proven difficult.

Can Edwards compete?

Nobody seems to be talking about former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, lost in the wake of the star power of fellow Democrats Obama and Clinton. According to most polls, Edwards is running a distant third in South Carolina, his native state. But he's atop the polls in Iowa, and if he wins there, he could be on a roll by the time S.C. voters go to the polls.

Will McCain collapse?

U.S. Sen. John McCain's campaign is floundering, having lost key national and S.C. staffers. The Arizona Republican's national fundraising has left him with little money, and McCain is having to rebuild his organization at a time some of his chief rivals -- notably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani - are gaining steam. But if there's a right time to have trouble, this is it, six months before votes are cast. And McCain's camp says it relishes the underdog role.

Who will Clyburn, Sanford endorse?

Both men are the most influential politicians in their respective parties.

Perhaps the most watched of the two endorsements will be that of Democrat James Clyburn, who might be choosing between Clinton and Obama. He passed on Edwards four years ago, backing U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt's failed campaign. But that was before he became the third most powerful member of the House. A Clyburn endorsement means much more these days and he's in a position to help pick a winner.

While the invitation to the Statehouse extended to Thompson and their photo op raised eyebrows, Gov. Mark Sanford has not let on who he might support. Could be no one, considering his name is being mentioned as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate. Those who think Sanford could wind up on a presidential ticket see him adding conservative credentials to a candidate suspect in that area.

What's up with Rudy?

The former New York City mayor's positions on abortion and guns don't fit with the positions of many conservative S.C. Republican voters. The thrice-married Republican's personal life also could be a liability.

But some polls show Giuliani leading in the Palmetto State. Perhaps winning over conservatives won't be as tough as many political observers think.