I just came back from a trip to New Orleans, this time to meet with leaders of the Interfaith Disaster Redevelopment Finance Fund -- a terrific initiative based at Mennonite Mutual Aid that is injecting badly-needed funds from faith groups in the the Katrina recovery to fill the gaps where Washington has fallen short.

A hot topic in New Orleans was the South's role in the 2008 elections. Many DC political strategists continue to write off the South: GOP operatives because they think of it as safe territory; Democrats because "experts" keep telling them they can't win.

But the South is like that stubborn old aunt that just won't stand to be ignored. Last week's GOP South Carolina primary -- which for two decades has been an essential stepping-stone for Republican hopefuls -- single-handedly resuscitated the campaign of John McCain (and knocked out Fred Thompson).

Why was this big? Because McCain won a state that reflects the GOP's conservative base, while maintaining his bona fides as a cross-over to independents -- no small feat.

South Carolina is shaping up to be critical for Democrats, too. Not just because of the 54 delegates in play this weekend, but because how campaigns fare among the half-black SC primary electorate will reveal how well they'll do in turning out (not just polling well among) African-American voters in November -- the most reliable base of the Democratic Party.

All of which will set the state for the show-down in Florida -- a state that looks a lot more like the South's future -- next Tuesday. For Republicans, Florida could knock out Giuliani while being a decisive boost for either McCain or Romney.

For Democrats, the fact that the state's delegates are still in contention -- punishment for moving up their primary to Jan. 29 -- makes the picture more complicated. The Democratic contenders have been banned from campaigning in the state, but their surrogates -- especially labor -- are hard at work working for their candidates.

What happens if the Democratic National Committee changes its mind and allows Florida's delegates to count -- as Florida leaders are pleading? Then Florida -- the 4th-most populous state in the country, and holder of 57 delegates -- could be in the position of swinging the primaries later in the season.

Next installment: Why the South's political clout is only getting bigger ... stay tuned