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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.

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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 co-mingle 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.

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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.

President Trump’s record — pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal; imposing tariffs on China; and playing strange with Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin — underscores how important it is to get a read on where candidates stand.

Among the contenders who have polled in the upper tier, Biden is most experienced in the international arena. But his debate performance — seemingly confused and tentative at times — created new doubts about his sturdiness for the top job. Twice, he abruptly ended his own answers with a “time’s up,” as though relieved he didn’t have to complete his thought.

When moderators asked candidates to raise their hands in response to several yes-or-no questions, Biden’s went up late and halfheartedly. He appeared to be gauging audience reaction before making his decision.

The same night, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, gave a decent answer about China, noting that the communist nation is “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship,” and he countered Trump’s approach with a plea for greater investment in domestic competitiveness. When the Wednesday field was asked if they’d re-enter the Iran deal, all but one (New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker) raised their hands, including that evening’s hands-down winner, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.

Notwithstanding Richardson’s keen observation, the most important question remains: Who can beat Donald Trump? The conventional wisdom that Biden could is no longer so obvious. On the other hand, Harris showed through her skirmish with the elder statesman that she’s fearless and sharp and won’t back down — presumably whether faced with a bully named Trump, Putin or Kim.

The night is very young, but my best prediction (until next time) would be a Harris-Buttigieg or a Harris-Castro ticket. Either combo would be formidable, smart, fresh, telegenic, classy, well-spoken and — a relief.

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Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker can be reached at kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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(7) comments

johnnybragatti

America is far over-due, in electing a Woman President. Let us true Americans shoot for that. "Trump For Prison 2020". needs to be a reality. He ain"t above the Law and that needs to be spelled out, to the Orange Carcass.

DMoney

Prioritizing a candidate primarily because of their sex? You know what's sad, is that's the best sentence you've put together in a month. And it's wasted on sexism and profiling. Scuse me, I'm going back to [sleeping]

johnnybragatti

Ya'll need to go back to sleep for a long,long time. As a friend of Dr.Demento(exlax2). ya"ll ain"t making a whole heckuva lotta sense. Do it for God ...do it for Jesus... and please don't take anymore orders from Z-kok, as he is out to "scream you".

DMoney

[sleeping]

oldhomey

There is a long time yet between now and the Iowa caucuses and the early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. A lot could happen to shape who looks most viable among the Democrats. I agree that out of this first debate, Kamala Harris looks like she would be a great candidate to face down the Liar-in-Chief in a debate setting. If it comes down to her, I would not be shocked to see Trump weasel out of any debates. But I don't know much about her. I think her policies are too hyper for the taste of moderate Democrats and Republicans who long, along with the rest of us, to be done with Trump. She would have to scale back. I think she already has been doing that on the question of healthcare, saying while she personally would give up her private insurance for a government plan, she would not propose doing away with private insurance. This, to me, is THE key issue of the 2020 election. People would like to keep Obamacare going, improving and widening it, but they don't want to make a sudden deep dive into Medicare For All. And, for good measure, we don't need the Democrats to be campaigning for free college educations for all, forgiveness of all student debt, guaranteed $1,000 a month incomes for all. Good Lord! Do we want to get rid of the worst president in the history of the nation, or do we want to grandstand on who has the most generous impulses in the presidential field, thus assuring his re-election?

thomaslind949

It's already too late Homey! The "progressives"have already blown it. People who live responsibly don't want to be told that they need to pay for those who, in many, many cases, do not. I'm happy to pay for accommodations for disabled people, wheel chair ramps, automatic doors and bathrooms that are easily accessed,etc. I don't want to pay for the sons and daughters of the average Joe (in many cases not smart enough, not motivated or just too immature) to go to college. I'm also in very good physical condition ( quit smoking like a chimney, and started working out 10 yrs. ago) and don't want to pay for those who don't care. Just like you Homey, I like helping people who need it. I just disagree with you on how many people actually NEED help. I think those "generous impulses" are more like bribes to get elected, than anything else. Trump is as good as reelected.

oldhomey

Well, I hesitate to disagree with anybody whose humanitarian impulses are as strong as yours, Tommy, but I can't see why somebody who feels so strongly about his fellow humans as you do could vote for a morally and financially bankrupted narcissistic ignoramus like Trump, who revels in his greed and his disregard for feeling for anybody but himself.

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