Lest there be any doubt what it’s all about, the Obama bus rolled into Orangeburg today, for a Stand for Change rally at the Smith Hammond Middleton Hall – named for three young black men killed in the 1968 “Orangeburg massacre”, when police fired on a crowd demonstrating to desegregate a local bowling alley.

John Edwards won’t be anywhere around here – the town is Obama territory, home to Claflin, one of the US’s best black universities – and Hillary Clinton has already left the state, heading for the wide open spaces of Arizona ahead of Tsunami Tuesday. Edwards is still working the backwoods, the torpid cities of shuttered mills and empty streets, still hoping for a narrow upset win out of a three way split – more realistically counting on his role as pushing from the left, to get the other two candidates out of their centrist comfort zone.

There’s no love lost between the two front-runners, following last night’s CNN debate, where Clinton and Obama took the gloves off after their brief moment of peace on MLK day morning. This was knock-down no-holds-barred, flat-out sh-tfight, the sort of slogathon that comes in any preselection for a general election that looks like a lay down misere. None of it was good news for Obama – Hillary had him on the ropes from the get-go, slamming him for his Illinois state voting record, for “working for a slumlord”, for inconsistency in his Iraq votes, the works.

It was mean and expert, especially with the misconstruction of Obama’s very Blairite remarks about the transformative power of Ronald Reagan. Obama got a few snaps back in – about Clinton being on the board of union-busting Walmart for example – but it was a defensive and far from reassuring performance, a vision of a man consistently outclassed.

Whether that will actually benefit Clinton remains to be seen, since it was pretty clear that Clinton was taking the debate downtown, and the victory may be pyrrhic. The resemblance to Tracey Flick, the snub-faced anti-hero of the classic film Election is becoming pretty overpowering. As viewers will recall, Election is about the deep, buried and ultimately defeated loathing of teacher Matthew Broderick for the self-appointed political class that Flick represents, the manner in which she succeeds simply by enforcing the assumption that she should.

Reading Clinton’s Living History memoir – a 300 page report from civics camp – only strengthens that impression, especially as it leaves out any suggestion of the time when her character really was formed: the early years of her marriage, having deferred a glittering career and moved to Little Rock for love, only to find that her husband was screwing everything in grits. Not a doubt in the world that was what put iron in her soul, and iron there is – I’m more impressed now than I was a week ago by her relentlessness. If she sounded the least sincere of the three in the debate, she also sounded the most no-nonsense, the most presidential.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be flying with an increasing number of black voters, whom the Clinton camp initially had high hopes of scooping up. But with 83% of black Democrats in Nevada going for Obama, it’s becoming clear that he is winning increasing support from an older generation of blacks, whom the Clintons were counting on. Hillary has left Bill in South Carolina – whatever Hillary is, she ain’t even 1% black – to get what he can, while she focuses on the west.

Increasingly however any discussion of identity politics is being overwhelmed by all-encompassing fears of a recession, now taking hold of the western world. But if people in the UK or Australia are scared, millions of Americans are petrified, given the absence of a safety net. Lose your job in this ramshackle backward country, and you lose your health care, and more. The middle class live on a knife-edge and Hills will be pitching to them relentlessly across the sun belt.

Yet the people really put on the spot by all this are the Republicans, who have been in deckchair mode for quite some time, playing to their scowling base. The field is winnowing – Fred Thompson has dropped out, depriving the campaign of the hottest first spouse by a country mile – and Huckabee has cancelled his press plane – and the economic crisis may concentrate minds further, especially as the Fed made a pretty frankly desperate – and ultimately self-defeating – interest rate drop this morning.

Normally, such conditions might benefit an incumbent, but of course there is no incumbent – and neither McCain nor Romney really sound like they appreciate the seriousness of the situation. The Presidency is there for anyone who can project the leadership to deal with a crisis of both prosperity and equality. Despite the enthusiasm all around me (“wass up dawgggg?” handslap handslap, etc) in the auditorium lobby, with more young people than I have seen at such a starchy event for a long long time, it’s looking more and more like Clinton in ’08.

For comprehensive coverage of the US election read Guy Rundle’s campaign trail here.