Tracking the GOP Race

Until the latest stampede to the front of the primary line, South Carolina was considered an “early” primary state for the Republicans with a January 29 date, just one week after New Hampshire. Then states crowed into Super Duper Tuesday on February 5 and Florida advanced its date to January 29. South Carolina, fighting to maintain a decisive role in the nomination process and its distinction as the “First in the South” primary, is now looking to move its date up. This may trigger New Hampshire, traditionally the first in the nation primary, and Iowa to move their dates.

From South Carolina’s perspective it’s a smart move. As Larry Sabato notes: “If we’ve learned one thing from modern history, it’s that the earliest primaries and caucuses usually determine the identity of the nominees. It’s almost always better to go earlier in January than later.”

South Carolina, of course, played a decisive role in 2000, halting John McCain’s momentum after a big New Hampshire win, and propelling George Bush to the nomination. South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson will decide this summer on the exact date and seems determined, despite RNC threats to potentially take away delegates, to maintain South Carolina as a “tremendous launching pad” where “the guy with the most money doesn’t always win.” In this small state he expects a historic turnout of 600,000-700,000 voters. Five to seven days before the primary will come a debate where as Dawson puts it anyone can “throw a Hail Mary” to shake up the race.

The campaigns seem to agree that South Carolina will be a key state. As Terry Sullivan — former Jim DeMint campaign manager who now leads Mitt Romney’s effort — says, the front loaded schedule has made states like South Carolina “more important, not less” as candidates seek momentum to propel them into Super Tuesday. Although hobbled by a financial wipeout and campaign remodel, Senator John McCain has identified South Carolina as one of the states where he still will mount a vigorous effort.

Most campaign officials as well as independent analysts think the days when a popular Governor like and Carroll Campbell could “deliver” the state are long gone. Although popular Governor Mark Sanford has yet to endorse a candidate it seems unlikely that he alone can change the outcome of the race. Dawson says in recent years he “hasn’t seen popularity transferable by endorsement” and that the state primary will be won by a combination of retail politics and media buys, which are modest in cost by big state standards. According to Dawson a good media buy of $200,000 per week can get a candidate plenty of coverage.

Dawson says the state is “very conservative, very Republican” pointing to lopsided wins by Republicans in 2006 despite a disastrous year across the country for Republicans. Nevertheless he sees this election cycle as a unique one. “I have seen elections where one issue would knock you out. I have voted that way. This election cycle is different. Every Democrat [running for president] voted against the partial birth abortion ban and every Republican supported it. There is no one disqualifier.” Dawson advises candidates to “project your vision of where you want America to go” but also says that finding a candidate to beat the Democrats “is going to matter to Republicans.” With a chuckle he says, Hillary Clinton “scares the hell out of us.” Finding someone to defeat her and “drive the train on the next two Supreme Court Justices” he thinks will motivate voters to find the strongest general election candidate.

Not surprisingly, each of the candidates’ campaigns sees the race differently. Sullivan acknowledges that Romney has not shown polling strength as he has in other early primary states but contends that is due to lack of paid media and that voters in the heat of the summer have yet to focus on the race. He admits that there may be some “hard core evangelicals” who may have a problem with Romney’s religion but contends that “if you are devout in your faith” it is a big plus for a candidate as is strong family values, executive experience and conservative ideology. He touts Romney’s strong organization down to the precinct captain level and notes that although McCain has piled up endorsements his role in immigration reform “expedited a downward spiral” for him. (He also chides McCain for failing to visit the county Republican conventions which he terms “almost a slap in the face” to local activists.) Dawson credits Romney with “a tremendous family and [being] a tremendous TV candidate” both pluses in a state where “family values” play strongly and paid ads can blanket the state.

Giuliani’s campaign admits getting a relatively late start in a state in which Romney and McCain had been organizing for a year. They then suffered a set back when state chair and South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted on drug charges. Political Science Professor Stephen H. Wainscott of Clemson University downplays the significance of the issue, pointing out that most South Carolinians would be hard pressed before the indictment to name Ravenel and that a state chair is “easily replaced an already has been” by Barry Wynn, former head of the state party and DeMint finance chair.

Now the Giuliani team appears confident with their effort pointing to increased staff and a recent poll numbers showing him ahead of both McCain and favorite southern son Thompson. Dawson confirms Giuliani’s surprising appeal in the state saying he has “drawn some of the largest crowds I’ve ever seen” and that “people stand in line to take their picture with him, even in very conservative areas.”

Wynn contends that the state is more diverse that some realize with coastal regions like Myrtle Beach growing in population and many voters recently moved from other states. Wynn says that voters recognize this as a “serious primary” on a par with 1980 and that voters realize the high stakes in a race in which some are talking about topics like “the survival of western civilization.” He maintains that voters in the state including social conservatives look to Giuliani as someone “who can lead in a crisis” and “was tested under fire.” Although far from New York, Wynn contends that South Carolinians are the type of people who visit New York and recognize “they can walk at midnight in places where they couldn’t walk in the middle of the day” before Giuliani was Mayor. He notes that Thompson and McCain were never in a “CEO” role and that Thompson’s experience as a Senator and lobbyist “works against him” leaving only his TV career which, he asks, “show cases, what?” He acknowledges that Romney was building a “good foundation” in the state but may have been halted by Thompson’s entry into the fray.

McCain’s campaign is showing no sign that they are throwing in the towel despite severe cuts in staff and fundraising woes. A McCain aide declares that he is the “only consistent, common sense conservative” in the race. Dawson also cautions against counting McCain out, contending that although many voters strongly opposed him on immigration there “is time to rebound.”

The McCain campaign insists that the changes to their state campaign are “limited” and that key personnel remain in place albeit in slightly different roles. They also insist that they have the “strongest political organization” in either party, citing their volunteer network down to the county level and their long list of state office holders and legislators.

These three GOP contenders will be joined by Fred Thompson. Thompson has already visited the state in his “testing the waters” phase. Congressman Gresham Barrett (R-SC) is an early supporter and in a written statement described Republicans there as “enthused about him and his values.” Repeating Thompson’s familiar line he noted that “the waters are getting pretty warm for him.”

Another supporter, freshman state representative Eric Bedingfield, was one of the few state representatives who resisted the entreaties of Speaker of the South Carolina House Bobby Harrell who endorsed McCain in January and corralled endorsements from 40 representatives. Bedingfield says “Definitely members will rethink and reevaluate” now that Thompson is entering and McCain’s fortunes are declining. Bedingfield cites Thompson’s “consistently conservative voting record” and “quaint appeal” as reasons why approximately ten state legislators have declared their support. The late start does not concern Bedingfield who jokes that “like baseball you don’t want to peak too soon.”

What about a dark horse? Dawson notes that Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) “speaks our language” and has gotten some traction but currently lacks financing. Other campaigns point to Sen. Sam Brownback’s (R-Kan.) drawing power with religious conservatives.

However, none of these candidates has yet broken through to double digits in the polls.
If the campaigns seem surprisingly candid about discussing their opponents’ weaknesses this is nothing new to South Carolina. As Dawson acknowledges politics in this state is one of the “roughest’ in the nation and can quickly become “personal.” (McCain claims to have been the victim in 2000 of nasty push polling and personal slurs by Bush supporters.) Sullivan jokes that in a 24/7 news cycle “you could have Mother Teresa running and you’d have YouTube coverage” pop up.

So we may once again see a bare knuckles brawl in a state that prides itself on always picking the eventual GOP nominee — a track record they are happy to remind you is more accurate than New Hampshire or Iowa.