Democrat Vincent Sheheen, who faces Republican Nikki Haley on the Nov. 2 ballot for governor, is carrying the near-term future of the state Democratic Party on his back, say rank-and-file Democrats.
If Sheheen loses three weeks and three days from now, S.C. Democrats face the stark prospect of being swept completely out of statewide office for the first time since Reconstruction.
"There is a sense of urgency, definitely," said state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg. "We don't want to be here on Nov. 3 saying what we should have done."
Concerned about that prospect, Sellers has been urging locally elected Democrats to mobilize their voters. Democratic voters will have to show up at the polls in massive numbers Nov. 2 in order for their party to have a chance at winning.
A lot is at stake.
If Democrats fail to win the governor's seat, they will have virtually no say in how the GOP-controlled legislature redraws congressional and legislative district lines in 2011.
Republican operatives in the state have made no bones about their party's redistricting plans for 2011 - to draw Democrats out of existence. Training on the issue has been under way for state parties through the Republican National Committee for the better part of a year.
Only one Democrat now holds a statewide office - State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. But Rex did not seek re-election, leaving that job up for grabs in a hotly contested race between Democrat Frank Holleman and Republican Jim Zais.
Facing extinction as a statewide party, "There is a sense of urgency to ignite that [Democratic] base in South Carolina," said Sellers.
The urgency is needed, say S.C. Republicans.
Democrats "need to be nervous, especially if they're pinning their hopes on a 17-point underdog," said Joel Sawyer, executive director of the S.C. Republican Party, referring to a recent poll that showed Sheheen trailing Haley badly.
Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, has shown growing strength in more recent opinion polls, closing the gap with Haley to five percentage points in one survey.
But in a strong red state like South Carolina, any deficit means a Democrat is in peril, even assuming the more upbeat polls are accurate.
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, said he has been traveling his 6th Congressional District the past several weeks, speaking to college students, civic groups, civil rights groups and individual voters in an effort to educate them on the stakes of the midterm elections and rouse participation.
"The [S.C.] Democratic Party may be at a crossroads, but the governorship is at a crossroads, too," Clyburn said, pointing to questions about Haley's ethics, business skills and transparency.
Haley consistently has paid her income, business and property taxes late, drawing fines. The Lexington state representative has campaigned saying state lawmakers should disclose all of their income to show they are free of outside influences, but only recently disclosed $42,500 in consulting income that she accepted from an engineering firm seeking government work. Questions also have been raised about Haley's employment with the Lexington Medical Center as a fundraiser, a $110,000-a-year job that was created for her. The job came after Haley fought in the General Assembly for the hospital's bid to build a long-sought heart center.
"If I had the record Nikki Haley has, I would be indicted," Clyburn said. "Nikki Haley's base is deteriorating fast and - as more people become disenchanted, more become disengaged - we [Democrats] will have to harness that energy and organize a very fundamental and sophisticated get-out-the-vote effort.
"I think we are going to win the governorship."
However, experienced political observers say even with the problems evident with Haley's candidacy, it will be tough for Sheheen to win in November.
When the polls were showing Haley with a near 20-point lead, some state Democrats urged the Sheheen campaign to consider bringing President Obama to the state to campaign.
The Sheheen campaign has signaled no such plans.
Instead, Jay Parmley, executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party, said the party has had a grass-roots effort under way since June to contact its voters and remind them they have "unfinished business" at the polls in November.
"What the heck has Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley done for you?" Parmley said.
Others are optimistic, including Sheheen's uncle, veteran politico and former House Speaker Bob Sheheen.
In June, Bob Sheheen told The State that his nephew could win the then-three-man Democratic primary outright, avoiding an anticipated runoff. The elder Sheheen, who does not speak for his nephew's campaign, said Vincent Sheheen "reprimanded" him for the comment.
But Sheheen won the nomination easily, taking 59 percent of the vote.
As for the general election campaign, Bob Sheheen said: "He's doing better than he was doing 60 days ago, and it's closer than it's ever been. ... You can't [overestimate the value of] momentum."
Sawyer disputes Sheheen's momentum.
Democrats are "not putting their eggs in a very good basket," Sawyer said. "Despite negative tactics by Vincent Sheheen, he is not moving the needle" in the race against Haley.
Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson University, said the ingredients for a Sheheen upset are at hand. But, he added, the Camden Democrat still has to make something of them.
"Sheheen can't win unless significant numbers of Republicans are dissatisfied and want a change," Ransom said. "I wouldn't close the door on Sheheen."
Ransom said positive "pebbles" abound for Sheheen, such as the recent startup of Conservatives for Truth in Politics, fostered by former Republican Party leaders who are concerned about Haley's honesty, the Republicans for Sheheen group and the state Chamber of Commerce's endorsement of Sheheen.