Democratic debates reveal a galaxy of stars
CAMDEN, S.C. -- By now, the winners and losers of the first Democratic presidential debate(s) have been thoroughly hashed, roasted and served up overdone.
Bottom line: Women won. Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar all made strong showings, outshining most in the majority-male lineup. Harris was the undisputed winner owing to her dramatic confrontation with former Vice President Joe Biden over his history with race and busing.
But the key to understanding who won or lost isn't what professional pundits think, as Tom Brokaw noted Friday on MSNBC'S "Morning Joe." It's what the folks are talking about in coffee shops and hair salons in places such as, it just so happens, South Carolina.
In politics, it always matters what the former secessionist state is thinking. Not only does South Carolina hold the first primaries for both parties in the South, but it's often a bellwether of the nation's presidential voting.
More important, this fascinating if largely misunderstood state is the nation's petri dish -- a diverse laboratory where America's gravest sins and deepest longings comingle in a tempest of love, hate, pride, resentment, atonement, forgiveness and, yes, resurrection.
Katon Dawson, a former state Republican Party chairman, once told me that he checks the political temperature by talking to people at the Lizard's Thicket, a popular Columbia restaurant among the grits-and-biscuit crowd. Which is to say, everybody.
When Republican Nikki Haley was running for governor in 2010 and a couple of men claimed to have engaged in extramarital relations with her, Dawson got his intel at a dry cleaners. He knew Haley would survive when two women working there told him they didn't know -- or care -- if the stories were true. Haley strongly denied both.
One of my own favorite stopovers for political insight is Camden Antiques Market, a destination shop/social meeting place here for dealers, collectors and random others who enjoy the company of owner Patricia Richardson, an erstwhile New Yorker and independent voter.
Tall, tough, well-read and engaged, Richardson is rarely without comment. When I popped in after the first debate, she reduced her impressions to a single scenario: "I try to picture each one of them sitting across from Kim Jong Un and I ask myself, who would do best? That's all I care about, and most didn't qualify."
Hers is a rational perspective, and yet, little time was dedicated to foreign policy last Wednesday and Thursday. With one or two exceptions, moderators mostly stuck to domestic issues, despite the fact that a president has almost unilateral control over so many decisions that affect millions of lives.