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With 2020 Democratic race in flux after Iowa, SC takes on even more importance

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GREENVILLE — Iowa was a mess. New Hampshire is already being written off by some Democrats as another unrepresentative, largely white state. Nevada, another caucus state like Iowa, remains up in the air and lower on the national radar.

South Carolina: The eyes of a deeply unsettled Democratic Party turn to you.

After more than a year of a relatively stable campaign, the "First in the South" Democratic primary race is entering a frenetic final stretch with more uncertainty than ever.

South Carolina's Feb. 29 results will serve as one of the final headlines heading into Super Tuesday on March 3, when more than a dozen states will weigh in on the race, giving the Palmetto State an outsize role in shaping the national narrative at a critical inflection point.

All that means the next three weeks could yield a storm of activity, said Gibbs Knotts, a College of Charleston political science professor who recently published a book on the history of the "First in the South" primary.

"It's even more important now because no one's really emerged as a clear front-runner, you really have a half-dozen people who can still make a case," Knotts said. "And more so than ever, there's a focus on the lack of diversity in the first two states. South Carolina is the first big test with African American voters."

South Carolina has long been viewed as Joe Biden's "firewall," the early-voting state that would give the former vice president a decisive victory regardless of what happened elsewhere and propel him into Super Tuesday with momentum.

His extensive relationships around the state and popularity with the African American voters who comprise a majority of the Democratic electorate here gave him a clear edge.

But his allies often questioned whether such a wall would even be necessary. Now, there is no doubt.

Iowa lit the first flame, giving Biden a fourth-place finish that he admitted was a "gut punch." Another fourth-place finish in New Hampshire on Tuesday, as the latest polls have indicated may happen, would set the fire fully ablaze.

The only question left is whether the South Carolina wall is strong enough to put it out.

He faces historical headwinds. The only eventual Democratic candidate in modern history to have lost both Iowa and New Hampshire was Bill Clinton in 1992. But even in that case, the then-governor of Arkansas rose to a second-place finish in the Granite State, earning the moniker of the "Comeback Kid."

Biden supporters in South Carolina, while still confident in his chances, have expressed more concern in recent days than at any prior point in the race.

But they argue 2020 is unlike any other election that's come before it, and the geographical strengths and weaknesses of Biden's candidacy are unlike any other White House hopeful that has come before him.

In the words of Amanda Loveday, a South Carolina Democratic strategist helping lead Biden's super PAC: "It's a really crazy year."

"We have a very divided Democratic Party, and that's new to us," Loveday said. "Democrats have a hard time getting out of our own way a lot of times, but this is the most divided we've been in a really long time."

The past week served as a preview of some of the February surprises that may arise as the primary approaches.

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The latest wildcard in the mix is a group of Upstate conservative activists who are encouraging Republican voters to show up for South Carolina's open primary and vote for Bernie Sanders.

Some Democratic strategists are skeptical of whether it will have an impact. After all, Democratic campaigns spend millions of dollars on advertising and field organizing to motivate actual Democrats to get out and vote — and even with all that effort, many still don't.

But given that pollsters generally only contact voters who have previously participated in Democratic primaries, Republican crossover voters could still have an unpredictable effect on the results and the nominating delegates that are distributed proportionally afterwards.

Meanwhile, Biden's rivals smell blood in the water.

Businessman Tom Steyer used a dispute between state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a white Biden supporter, and state Rep. Jerry Govan, a black Steyer adviser, over Govan's large payment from the Steyer campaign to take a whack at Biden, slamming Harpootlian for "Trump-like dirty campaign tactics."

Steyer has focused more exclusively on South Carolina than any other candidate, spending millions on advertising and field organizing to cut into Biden's lead among black voters.  He is the only candidate set to return to the state Sunday even though New Hampshire's primary will be just days away.

But, unlike come-from-behind candidates in previous cycles, Steyer is not emerging from Iowa with any particular momentum of his own after coming in a distant seventh place there, depriving him of any helpful talking points about his own viability.

After Pete Buttigieg's strong performance in Iowa, Claflin University NAACP President Terin Tyson said the former South Bend, Ind., mayor's campaign reached out to her looking to capitalize with an endorsement — the timing of which she said she understood but declined.

Buttigieg recently spoke on the campus of Claflin, a historically black university in Orangeburg, as he tried to make inroads with the black voters that have eluded him thus far on his unlikely rise into serious contention for the nomination.

"I'm not exactly sure they were completely sold on Mayor Buttigieg," Tyson said of the reaction among students to his appearance, though she added that they appreciated him coming. "Definitely a majority of our students are leaning toward Joe Biden's campaign for several reasons, but I think the main reason is because he is a familiar face."

Even some of the deepest underdogs suddenly see fresh hope for a surprise performance in the state.

A super PAC supporting Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whose late entrance into the race has struggled to make much of a splash, has made a last-minute push in South Carolina with substantial investment in advertising and field organizing.

South Carolina voters may well be in for more surprises yet.

"The stakes are so high, it's in such a crucial position in terms of the election calendar and it's going to be the last stand for some candidates," Knotts said. "So it's only going to get more intense."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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