Private groups politicking hard in Palmetto State

COLUMBIA -- From health care to chronic disease to education and global poverty, a number of private groups are spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours in South Carolina to push their issues to the forefront of the presidential campaigns.

Some of the groups' campaigns are less visible, some are flashier complete with supporters clad in identical T-shirts or wearing stickers. But all are working the Palmetto State. Here's a primer on the groups and their issues.

Divided We Fail

"So many families are one health catastrophe away from financial ruin," said Bill Brown, national chairman of AARP's Divided We Fail campaign.

AARP recently wrapped up 20 roundtable discussions with South Carolinians about health care and financial security. The campaign has the support of Fortune 500 chief executives, the Service Employees International Union and AARP, which lobbies for older Americans and retirees.

Thus far, Brown said, the reaction from candidates has been mixed. Candidates are paying attention, but health care has not received the attention it deserves in the debates. he said. "You've had three debates in South Carolina, and in all three, health care and financial security did come up but not that extensively."

The campaign's distinctive red T-shirts help, Brown said. "Candidates look for us."

ED In '08

"We're not asking the next president to become the national superintendent of schools," said Marc Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools' "ED in '08" campaign. "We want them to ... create a moment of leadership; work with teachers, school boards, parent groups as a leader to say, 'We have some problems. We have some issues.' "

The organization's goal is to force candidates to debate education reform. But the group also has three strategies that it says will help the next generation of students:

• Raise expectations to create higher standards for students

• Provide struggling schools with highly qualified teachers

• Extend the school day and school year

The campaign has support in South Carolina from former state education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum, a Democrat, and former Gov. David Beasley and former S.C. first lady Iris Campbell, both Republicans.

ONE Vote '08

"We're trying to reach the candidates everywhere in South Carolina," said Marie-Louise Ramsdale, founding director of S.C. First Steps and a volunteer with the "ONE Vote '08" campaign.

The campaign is an offshoot of the national ONE campaign, created to fight global poverty and disease. ONE Vote '08's plan is to "get the general public to make it clear to the (presidential) candidates that our issues are important."

Ramsdale said the group has more than 15,000 S.C. supporters who run the gamut from evangelicals, who see a moral imperative to helping the world's desperate populations, to national security hawks, who fear poverty breeds extremism, to people who "just believe people should have good health and clean drinking water."

In South Carolina, the campaign has the support of a disparate group that includes former Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., civil rights leaders and young voters.

The ONE campaign takes the prize for celebrity endorsements. It also has a white wristband fashioned after the ubiquitous yellow "Live Strong" bands that cyclist Lance Armstrong popularized a few years ago.

Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease

More than 1.5 million South Carolinians suffer from at least one of the five most chronic diseases, costing the state billions of dollars, according to the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease.

The group is a national coalition of patients, health-care providers, health policy experts, and community, business and labor groups. Their goal is to raise awareness of health-care needs and solutions that save lives and reduce costs through prevention and management of chronic disease.

Partnership executive director Ken Thorpe, a professor of healthy policy and management at Emory University, sees South Carolina as a key example of why the group's work is so important.

"Look at the Southeast and South Carolina as a great example," Thorpe said. "The obesity rates are really high they've doubled."