It’s that time of year again — caucus and primary season. Americans everywhere are shifting their attention away from the politics of Gubernator Ah-nold, and onto two states that have a combined population roughly a fifth that of the New York City area. Every four years, Iowa and New Hampshire emerge from an abyss of anonymity and steal the political spotlight. Let’s face it: these states don’t have much going for them in the overall arena of national recognition; we will never see downtown Des Moines as the backdrop on Letterman, or hear Tom Hanks utter the words, “Hanover…we have a problem.” Yet the sheer fact that these states’ primary contests are held earlier than any other compels presidential candidates to flood into local coffee shops with political groupies quick at their heels. Amidst all the media hoopla, I say forget about Iowa and New Hampshire — it’s time for us to recognize a more important primary that is set for Feb. 3. I speak not of my beloved home state Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain, but rather of South Carolina — a state that has recently moved its primary date to be the first in the South.

Before diving into justifications on why South Carolina deserves more attention, it’s important to realize why the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary warrant less attention. The Iowa Caucus system is messy, resembling more of a town hall meeting than a traditional voting-booth election. It is a system based on a headcount, not a ballot count — where voters enter the polling place with a general idea for whom they will vote, but can easily switch sides by walking to a different corner of the room. While this system may circumvent any confusion caused by “hanging chads” on ballots, it at the same time produces an outcome more affected by peer pressure, popular rhetoric and political bargaining (such as the deal worked out between Kucinich and Edwards to trade supporters in the case of an obvious loss by one of the candidates).

Admittedly, the New Hampshire primary is fairly significant. But the distinctions here between New Hampshire and South Carolina involve the different voting blocs and geographical regions that these two states represent. The Northeast is a solid Democratic establishment that consistently paints itself blue in November. The South, on the other hand, is a Republican stronghold to which Democrats have had difficulty making inroads — case in point, Al Gore in 2000.

Therefore in terms of the presidential election against Bush, the South Carolina primary would be much more useful in determining to which democratic candidate the South would be the most receptive. Furthermore, around 50 percent of the South Carolina primary vote is expected to be put forth by African Americans — a group that has little representation in Iowa and New Hampshire, and a group that Democrats will have to woo in order to win in November. Most interestingly, South Carolina allows voters of any political affiliation to participate in the primary — including Republicans and Independents. This non-partisan vote would most resemble an actual electoral contest and thus would well predict the November performance of a particular candidate in the region.

For Senator Edwards, this primary is a make-it or break-it event. Originally born in Seneca, and representing the state’s neighbor to the north, he must put forth a strong performance. To falter here would make the Palmetto State his political deathbed, much in the same way the results of the Iowa Caucus put an end to the Gephardt campaign. Arkansas-native Wesley Clark is in a similar situation, for it will be difficult to sustain momentum throughout the rest of his campaign without the support of his native region.

Disappointingly, Senator Kerry has shown almost a complete lack of interest in the first primary of the South. He is the only candidate yet to air commercials in the state, and his campaign staff has retreated. Kerry’s intentions to return to South Carolina to campaign after the New Hampshire primary might be too little, too late. South Carolina should be elevated to at least the same level of importance as Iowa and New Hampshire, especially because the state’s large veteran population represents a potential win given Kerry’s decorated military history. If Kerry does go on to win the Democratic nomination, it is uncertain whether or not the South will be willing to forgive his apathy come November.

Given the volatility of politics and the fickle nature of the electorate, it would be rash to predict the winner of the South Carolina Primary. But while the identity of the victor may be unclear, it should be perfectly understood that the path of every Democratic contender will be fundamentally altered by the results of this contest. South Carolina, and not Iowa or New Hampshire, will be remembered as a crucial turning point in the 2004 Democratic Primaries.