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Gary Younge
Old words and new tunes as the campaign enters Dixie

Howard Dean recalled the civil rights era and exhumed the memory of the four little girls killed in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Meanwhile, behind Wesley Clark stood not his campaign manager or his wife but two black women and one Latina as he said goodbye to the north-east.

John Edwards was below the Mason-Dixon Line by nightfall. By yesterday morning he stood before a roomfull of African-American local officials who had only just stopped dancing to the band of the historically black college in Orangeburg, South Carolina.

"I am the guy who can beat George Bush in the north, west, mid-west and the south," he said. "The south is not George Bush's backyard, it's my backyard, and I can beat him in my own backyard."

Over the next week he and the other candidates will try to get their chance to take on Mr Bush, by stopping the momentum that Senator John Kerry has built up.

Yesterday they took to the air, scattering throughout the country with seven states at stake and seven days in which to win them.

With four times as many delegates to be won on February 3 as Iowa and New Hampshire have offered in two weeks, the candidates embarked on a campaign stretching from the shores of South Carolina to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico and the snow-swept plains of North Dakota.

Until now only one of them - Al Sharpton - has concentrated his message and money on essentially local campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are predominantly white.

Traversing New Hampshire in buses (to establish his Vietnam credentials Mr Kerry occasionally used a helicopter) the candidates sought to shake almost every hand and meet almost every potential voter.

Now they will zigzag the country, spending as much time in the air as they do on the ground - and spending more money, as they advertise in those places they cannot reach.

The states they will be contesting are far more ethnically diverse: there are large Hispanic populations in New Mexico and Arizona, and substantial African-American constituencies in South Carolina and Missouri.

Although Mr Kerry enters this new phase as the frontrunner, he has by no means got the race sewn up. Each state presents a very different challenge. Oklahoma has many veterans; South Carolina is less socially liberal; Arizona and New Mexico will want answers to questions about immigration and the environment.

Having spent a huge amount on his campaign in the first two states, Mr Kerry has devoted little time, effort or money to the rest of the country. He has the momentum of two convincing wins, but he has not been to South Carolina since September. There, his stiff north-eastern demeanour may prove a handicap, and he has little in the way of an organisation in the west.

Mr Dean, meanwhile, has a bedrock of supporters in almost every state - but whether they will provide him with enough support to actually win any is a moot point.

Polls show Mr Kerry leading in Arizona but coming second to General Clark and Mr Edwards in Oklahoma, and to Mr Edwards in South Carolina.

Missouri has been wide open since Richard Gephardt, who was widely predicted to win in his home state, pulled out of the race. Mr Sharpton will enter the contest seriously for the first time, testing his appeal to African-American voters, while Gen Clark and Mr Edwards battle it out to see who is the south's most favoured son.

South Carolina holds the most symbolic importance - it is the first race in both men's former heartland, and where black voters account for half the electorate.

But Missouri without Mr Gephardt is potentially the most lucrative: no single candidate has a geographical advantage and it has more delegates than Iowa and New Hampshire put together.

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