April 26, 2007 -- With eight Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination, the stage at the first debate of the 2008 cycle will be only slightly smaller than it was when nine candidates came to Columbia, S.C., for the first debate four years ago.
But people at South Carolina State University, a historically black school, seem to want to talk only about the two candidates who will find themselves centerstage behind the podiums at the Martin Luther King Jr. auditorium Thursday night.
Eight Contenders, Two Person Race
"Either one of them could make history," said Antoine Richardson, 18, a freshman here.
He was, of course, talking about the Illinois senator who, if elected, would be the country's first African-American president, and the New York senator who would be the first female president.
Richardson (no relation to the New Mexico governor who would be the first Hispanic president) didn't seem to have a favorite, but he said he'd be happy to see either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton win the nomination.
Michael Johnson, a 19-year-old first-year student, said he likes Obama. But he couldn't seem to say why.
"I like what he talks about doing for the people and everything, and I'd just really like to see him in office," Johnson struggled to explain.
But what of Obama's lack of experience?
"You can't really judge by experience. You've just got to go with how you feel about a person, and I feel Obama would be a good candidate."
Making History: Clinton vs. Obama
How African-American voters feel about a Democratic candidate matters a great deal, according to South Carolina State University social science professor William Hine.
"African-Americans to the Democratic party are as important as evangelical Christians are to the Republican party," Hine believes.
And he says that's especially true in South Carolina, where nearly one in three residents is African-American.
In an effort to boost support among that key constituency, the leading Democratic candidates -- Obama and Clinton among them -- recently paid homage to the Rev. Al Sharpton, addressing his National Action Network last weekend in New York.
In 2004, blacks in South Carolina helped to give then-candidate Sharpton his strongest showing in a state primary, with 10 percent of the vote. He fared better, with 20 percent, only in the District of Columbia.
Still, Hine says, Sharpton's endorsement might not be that helpful down here.
"It's not that significant in South Carolina. I wouldn't underestimate it, but it's not that significant. I think that local African-American leaders have a far greater impact," Hine says, advising political observers to measure how close the front-runners can get to Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., whose postdebate fish fries are legendary.
Hine, who specializes in history, doesn't discount John Edwards, who placed first among seven candidates in this state's last primary. But Hine, too, believes Obama and Clinton are the candidates to beat this time.
"I'm really juggling the two," says Clarice Watson, a 21-year-old senior economics major from Myrtle Beach. "I'm an African-American and a woman," she sighs. But I can't vote two times."