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Make-or-break votes

South Carolina is now a must-win for Edwards. For McCain and Giuliani, Florida will be key.

January 21, 2008

Saturday's caucuses in Nevada raised at least two pressing questions that may be answered on fast-approaching Super-Duper Tuesday and that could determine the Democratic nominee for president: Can unions deliver their members? And whither John Edwards?

Just a week ago, Edwards' campaign was touting the possibility of an upset win in Nevada, a boast made marginally credible by his labor support. Nevada was the first state with a significant labor presence to vote in this year's caucuses and primaries, and Edwards' populist message reverberates among some union leaders. Nevada, then, seemed as good a place as any for him to notch his first victory. Instead, he tanked, as labor's rank and file deserted him for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Similarly, Barack Obama had counted on labor, specifically the Culinary Workers Union, to bring him a victory in his rubber match with Clinton, having split Iowa and New Hampshire. There again, leaders of the union endorsed Obama -- as did Los Angeles' charismatic and highly effective labor federation boss, Maria Elena Durazo -- but exit polls showed members deserted their leaders for Clinton.

The loose allegiance between labor leaders and their members has implications for all the Democrats. Indeed, most mainstream labor groups support Clinton, and if they fail to deliver, she will suffer along with her rivals. But so far, labor's ineffectiveness has punished Obama and, especially, Edwards, who now has one more shot to prove his credibility: Saturday's Democratic primary in his native state of South Carolina. If he fails there, Edwards likely will become unelectable. Already, his national support is dropping, and his turnout has fallen with each contest, from 30% in Iowa to 17% in New Hampshire to 4% in Nevada. Desperate, Edwards has become increasingly shrill -- witness his weird and uncalled-for criticism of Obama last week for daring to suggest that Ronald Reagan was an important president who changed American politics. Edwards deserves the chance to prove his doubters wrong, and South Carolina is the place to do it. If he comes up short there, Edwards may well be through for this election.

That's all about Democrats, of course. Republicans have their own quandaries, which generally center on whether the party can unite behind John McCain and whether Rudolph W. Giuliani can win the nomination while shrugging off the early primaries. So far, neither has made a convincing case for those propositions, allowing Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee to stay in the race and hope for a stumble by the front-runners. Florida will test the Republican strategies and make or break Giuliani; South Carolina could be Edwards' last stand.

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