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Dems Prep for Orangeburg Rumble

You have to surf around to get a good overview of tonight's ((7:00 p.m. est) debate between presidential candidates in Orangeburg, S.C. We'll get you started. First, the format, from MSNBC's 'First Read' reporter Mark Murray:

The State has experts saying that tonight’s debate format will make it difficult for anyone outside the top-tier of candidates to break through. “There will be eight candidates on the stage at 7 p.m. facing 90 minutes of questions from NBC News anchor Brian Williams. There are no opening and closing statements. At most, there will be time for about 12 questions, if each candidate is given one minute to respond to each question.”

Sounds like maybe Brian Williams will be the real winner. The upside of the format from a fairness standpoint is that second tier candidates will get equal time, with no commercials. "Special software designed by the network will keep track of how long each candidate gets on the air to ensure equal time," explains Nedra Pickler in her Associated Press preview.

WaPo's Chris Cilliza has quickie what-to-look for riffs for each candidate in The Fix. A sample:

The Connecticut senator is our dark horse in tonight's debate. He's a fiery speaker who knows that he's got to peel off supporters from Clinton, Obama and Edwards in order to move his numbers. That's a combustible combination that could make Dodd the story of the night. Dodd's strongest weapon? His status as the only Democratic presidential candidate to cosponsor legislation offered by Sens. Russ Feingold (Wisc.) and Harry Reid (Nev.) that would remove funding for the war in Iraq next March. Dodd is also likely to push the frontrunners on specifics as he has touted himself as the candidate of ideas -- most notably on energy policy.

Sam Youngman speculates that hot-button issues, like gun control and abortion will set the tone of the debates in his The Hill post "Dems walk tightrope in S.C. on guns." Youngman sees Dems facing a tough dilemma:

The White House hopefuls will have to address both issues in front of what are essentially two distinct audiences: a national base that leans left on the issues, and a live audience in the crucial state of South Carolina, where Democrats tend to be more socially conservative.

While any candidate would welcome an early victory (Ja. 29) in the South Carolina primary, the debate is nationally-broadcasted, and candidates will surely be playing more to the cameras. Interest in the '08 campaign is substantially higher than usual, according to Pew Research. As the first nationally-broadcast debate (MSNBC), ratings should be high.