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.
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 comingle 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.
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.