WASHINGTON, May 3 (UPI) -- The nine candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination are set to meet in South Carolina Saturday night for the first debate prior to the 2004 election as the nation turns its attention from war to the political stage.
The debate will be held at Drayton Hall on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Greenville at 9 p.m. EST, moderated by former Clinton chief of staff George Stephanopoulos who now is a commentator for ABC News.
The network is reportedly airing the debate two hours later in some areas. C-SPAN will broadcast the debate on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.
The South Carolina Democratic Party is sponsoring the event and, as of Friday night, all the candidates were planning to attend, officials said. The debate is the centerpiece of the state party's two-day conference.
"South Carolina Democrats are proud and honored about the early and important role our state will play in picking our next president," said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian .
On Friday, the candidates spent the day participating in state party events such as the fish fry hosted by Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Saturday they were expected to attend the Democratic Women's Council breakfast and then later a presidential candidates' "meet and greet."
Democrats have a crowded field with Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass. and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., Reps. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, Richard Gephardt, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former Sen. Carol Mosley Braun, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. and civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
The Democrats face February primaries, with Iowa and New Hampshire holding their caucuses in January.
Political analysts expect the candidates to assail President George W. Bush's economic policies, particularly his tax cut proposal that was recently slashed from $726 billion to $350 billion in a deal between the GOP leadership and Republican moderates who threatened to withhold their support of the budget resolution.
The debate comes six days before Bush is to deliver the commencement address on the same campus. The university will bestow the president with an honorary law degree. Bush's father while president addressed the graduating class in May 1990.
A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted last month showed Lieberman leading the group of candidates as the choice for 19 percent of voters surveyed. Gephardt had 14 percent and Kerry had 13 percent. Dean and Sharpton trailed with 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively.
The debate also comes a day after a portion of the campaign finance law was struck down by a federal panel. It is expected to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At issue is the McCain-Feingold law that banned the use of soft money and restricted so-called issue ads. While the ruling is being reviewed, the Democratic and Republican parties will be able to resume raising soft money as long as it is not used for issue ads.
South Carolina is a Republican stronghold and the Democratic Party there has been lacking cash in recent years after having a tight grasp on nearly all the top political posts in the 1980s.
The candidates have essentially laid low during the war in Iraq, surfacing only to question the president's war budget and tax cut bill. The debate will give them a chance to re-emerge and confront differing opinions within the party and highlight campaign agendas. This week Kerry and Dean squared off over military readiness, and Gephardt trotted out a proposal for universal health care.
Gephardt's proposal gives employers a 60 percent tax credit on health care premiums for their workers and reimburses state and local governments for the cost of providing health insurance for their workers. The plan would cost $700 billion for the first three years.
Edwards has been promoting his economic plan that includes energy tax credits for every family, incentives for immediate business investments, extension of unemployment benefits and a relief package for the states.
Edwards has proposed postponing additional tax rate breaks for Americans making over $200,000, while making tax cuts for middle income families permanent.
Dean has said that Bush's education reform law would result in the mis-identification of between 30 and 65 percent of all community schools as failing. He called the federal law the "second largest unfunded mandate (after special education) in the history of federal education legislation."
Lieberman, who ran as a vice-presidential candidate in 2000 alongside Al Gore -- a staunch environmentalist, wants to pass a Clean Power Act to reign in pollution from power plants and ban drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It was in January when several of the candidates met during the U.S. Conference of Mayors summit in Washington. There they told the nation's mayors the Bush administration was not serving the interests of their cities well and that come 2004 it would be a time for a change in America's leadership.
Kerry told the crowd then that Americans deserve leadership that is prepared to offer "truth and common sense, an effort to find common ground."
On Thursday, Kerry said that it could take years for a president to balance the federal budget because there were deficits "as far as the eye can see."
Gephardt had pointed in January out the Democrats made a balanced federal budget a priority in 1994 at the cost of losing control of the U.S House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Gephardt said it was time for that to change.
Dean had referred to Bush's education reform plan as the "Leave every school board behind" law. He said if he is chosen to face Bush in 2004, he would spend $27 billion to fully fund special education.