COLUMBIA, S.C. - Only a few weeks ago, today's Democratic presidential primary in South Carolina was expected to be the critical test among the seven similar contests held simultaneously in the madcap sprint to determine the party's standard-bearer against President Bush in November.
The election here still is very important, especially to the chances of Southern candidates Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas. Mr. Edwards, born in South Carolina, has deemed its primary a must-win test for his ability to continue his candidacy.
For front-runner Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the primary here is an opportunity to drive from the race the one candidate, Mr. Edwards, who has outshone him on the stump, especially in the Iowa caucuses, where Mr. Edwards was the surprise runner-up. His fresh face and optimistic, positive pitch has been a distinctive crowd-pleaser, and the polls have him slightly ahead of Mr. Kerry in his native state.
Yet in the emerging public focus on electability - the ability to beat Mr. Bush - Mr. Edwards has been no match elsewhere against the Massachusetts senator, who has been bolstered by his rM-isumM-i as a decorated Vietnam veteran and a Senate leader in matters of defense and national security and by his serious demeanor.
With Mr. Edwards here almost full time over the last week, only Mr. Kerry, Mr. Clark and the Rev. Al Sharpton have made any challenge at all to him. All the other candidates except Mr. Sharpton, who hopes to capitalize on the state's black voter registration of about 40 percent, left South Carolina over the weekend.
A state party rule requiring primary participants to affirm in writing that they are Democrats upset many independent voters who told pollsters they favor Mr. Edwards over Mr. Kerry. The rule was dropped.
But more than any other issue, electability appears to have become the voters' chief measurement of the Democratic field in all seven states voting today. The others are Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona. Mr. Kerry, hoping for a sweep, has touched down frenetically in most of them.
In these seven states, 269 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in late July are to be chosen as the race shifts from the delegate-light but psychologically significant early tests in Iowa and New Hampshire to the hard count up to the 2,200 delegates required for nomination.
In this shift, one result of the Iowa caucuses - driving Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri from the competition after a dismal fourth-place finish - has opened not only Missouri but also Michigan, voting Saturday, to the other candidates. The pro-labor Mr. Gephardt was expected to win his home state and do well in labor-dominated Michigan until he dropped out.
In Michigan, Mr. Kerry has the solid support of two of the nation's largest unions, the service employees and the government employees, with others signing up daily in the wake of the Dean slide and the endorsement of Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.
Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, struggling to regenerate his suddenly deflated campaign, came to South Carolina only to take part in a debate. He has leapfrogged most of today's contests to focus on Michigan and then Wisconsin.
Roy Neel, the former Al Gore aide who has replaced Joe Trippi as Dr. Dean's campaign manager, says that concentration on those states can position the former governor for a comeback March 2, Super Tuesday, when 13 states vote, including California, New York, Texas, Ohio and Maryland.
Both Dr. Dean and Mr. Neel took issue over the weekend with contentions that Dr. Dean has to win somewhere today to remain in the race. Mr. Neel has argued that the Democratic field is likely to be reduced after today's round of contests and that the election in Michigan enhances Dr. Dean's chances to be "the last-standing alternative" in Wisconsin, the only state holding a primary Feb. 17.
But the snowballing of endorsements for Mr. Kerry by party and labor leaders in the last week suggests that many Democrats may have had enough of the divisive primaries - with Dr. Dean now desperately on the attack against Mr. Kerry - and are ready to start uniting to take on President Bush.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column usually appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.