Six weeks before South Carolina Republicans and Democrats cast their primary votes for president, the races remain very much up in the air.
On the Democratic side, most polls show Sen. Hillary Clinton with a comfortable lead in South Carolina, but some also show her support slipping in Iowa, giving fresh hope to Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, her main rivals.
On the Republican side, what many considered a four-way race between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson now shapes up as a five-way contest, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee joining the party.
Huckabee dropped by North Charleston
on Friday as part of a swing through South Carolina.
He came to bask in his rising support and to accept endorsements from Charleston County Council Chairman Tim Scott and from Maurice Washington, chairman of the board of trustees of South Carolina State University.
Huckabee also discussed his nine-point plan for immigration reform, which calls for building a fence along the Mexican border by 2010, hiring more Border Patrol agents, imposing fines on employers who hire illegal immigrants, promoting immigration-law training for local police and modernizing the process of legal immigration.
He said his proposal doesn't include amnesty and would give those here illegally 120 days to leave the country and apply to return through legal means. Those who don't leave would be deported and have to wait 10 years to legally return. "It's not to be harsh but rather it's to be fair to all," he said.
Supporters of the Fair Tax, a plan to replace the national income tax with a national sales tax, made up a good-sized chunk of the 100-plus people who crammed into a North Charleston hotel conference room to hear Huckabee.
Charleston County GOP Chairwoman Lin Bennett, a Thompson supporter, noted that Huckabee's position as the only front-runner who has endorsed the tax gives him a built-in base here. "These Fair Tax people, wherever you go, there are gazillions of them."
Meanwhile, other candidates are sending spouses here to solidify their support.
Former President Bill Clinton will appear here today, while Thompson's wife Jeri plans to meet with supporters at 5:15 p.m. Monday at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant.
Huckabee said he believes his poll numbers have risen recently for several reasons, including his debate performances and a few extended televised interviews. He said martial arts star Chuck Norris' endorsement helped, noting that almost every television network ran Norris' endorsement spot for free as a news item, and it was the most watched video on YouTube for two days.
He also joked about another big-time endorser coming to South Carolina: Multimedia star Oprah Winfrey will appear Sunday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia with Obama.
"I respect very much that Senator Obama has Oprah, but in a smackdown, Chuck wins every time," he said.
While a few polls show Huckabee in the lead in South Carolina, others show a virtual dead heat among several candidates.
"There are a lot of unknowns this year, a lot of new territory," said College of Charleston political science professor Bill Moore.
"On the Democratic side, the race pits a woman candidate and an African-American candidate," he said. "On the Republican side, you simply don't have any one candidate who has captured the imagination of the Republicans. On top of that, everything is front-loaded this year, so it's just unchartered territory."
Despite what South Carolina polls show this month, the numbers here likely will change as Iowans hold their caucus Jan. 3, followed by the New Hampshire primary Jan. 8. The GOP primary in South Carolina will be Jan. 19, and the Democratic primary will be Jan. 26.
"What's going to impact most in South Carolina is what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire," Moore said. "If Hillary starts to falter, then South Carolina becomes a different ball game."
Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and has been the top fundraiser among Democrats here, said during a Charleston visit Thursday that he's not worried about his poll numbers here.
"I'm doing better than I was four years ago at this point, and I won the state four years ago," he said. "If people in South Carolina know that I come from here, that I will fight for them, that I will stand up for the working, middle-class families that need a chance, we'll do fine in South Carolina."
Those early states present even higher stakes for the GOP hopefuls.
"I could see Fred Thompson out of it, or maybe John McCain, by the time they get to South Carolina," Moore said. "To me, one of the questions that should be asked on every poll is who is your second choice. That can be important as you have people drop out."