With New Hampshire and Iowa in the rear view mirror and Michigan’s primary tomorrow, the GOP presidential campaign is heading south. The national media may fawn over New Hampshire and Iowa but only South Carolina primary voters have a perfect record in selecting the eventual GOP nominee. Indeed there is good reason to believe that the field will be considerably narrowed in South Carolina on January 19.
LAY OF THE LAND
Polling following John McCain’s win in New Hampshire initially showed Mike Huckabee with a comfortable lead in South Carolina. But the New Hampshire “bump” soon lifted John McCain to first place by seven points in the Fox News poll with Mitt Romney falling to third. The debate on Thursday marked an exceptionally good outing for Fred Thompson who is banking that a win here will vault him into the top rung of competitors.
GOP South Carolina chairman Katon Dawson does not think South Carolina voters will be guided by results from earlier states. He notes that “South Carolina has not intrinsically paid a lot of attention” to the results from earlier states. Moreover, with relatively inexpensive media markets and a small state easily traversed in a day, all the candidates, Dawson explains, will have a chance to make their pitch and meet many voters face to face.
They better come with their helmets on. McCain recollects the whisper campaign that helped submarine his presidential aspirations in 2000. Dawson candidly admits that politics here can be “brutal” and that the campaign teams have an avalanche of voter data and highly trained staff including the latest crop of college kids manning their efforts. He explains that “they take their politics seriously” and organization, much more so than wealth or editorial opinion, determines elections. Brad Warthen, editorial page editor of South Carolina’s largest and premiere political newspaper, The State, agrees it may be “bare knuckles time.”
Among the key issues will be immigration. At the opening of the state legislative session more bills were introduced on immigration –ranging from eliminating state benefits for illegals to requiring that drivers’ license tests be administered in English – than on any other topic. Values voters here, as they were in Iowa, also will play a critical role. Dawson notes that social conservatives in the state “are not like the AFL-CIO with an office. These were conservatives before conservatives were cool.”
South Carolina appears to be fertile ground for Mike Huckabee. Dawson notes that Huckabee managed expectations in New Hampshire well and will seek to duplicate his success in Iowa. Huckabee does not have the professional staff and organization to match McCain’s operation but he does have people like Hal Stevenson, a prominent businessman and evangelical. Stevenson explains that he had been a Sam Brownback supporter but went looking for another candidate when Brownback dropped out. He acknowledges that Club for Growth had “dissuaded” him from supporting Hucakbee because of sharp criticism about Huckabee’s economic views but when he actually met with Huckabee he found those criticisms were “overblown.” Instead Stevenson found that Huckabee addressed issues “from the perspective of the little guy” – a message that resonated with a small businessman who often competes against big business. Most importantly, Stevenson found in Huckabee someone who presents himself with “real Christian character.” He says bluntly, with Huckabee the country can see that Christian conservatives “are not a bunch of yahoo bigots who tell people a lot of what not to do.”
Huckabee also has in his corner Mike Campbell, son of former popular Governor Caroll Campbell. He declines to say that South Carolina is a “must win” for Huckabee but does say that it will “help solidify” his standing and help propel him into February 5. One of the first prominent South Carolina names to endorse Huckabee, Campbell contends that Huckabee’s appeal is broader than just Christian conservatives. He says that critics of Huckabee’s populism and economic record “miss the mark on the definition of leadership” and ignore Huckabee’s successes in Arkansas. He says the relevant question is “Did you leave what you inherited in better shape than when you got it?” and points to the billion dollar surplus when Huckabee left office and his record of 94 tax cuts. He says that Iowa demonstrated that Huckabee could win support from women, first time voters and those with incomes below $100,000. Most important perhaps is what Campbell calls his “likability,” explaining that Huckabee “can sit and talk to anyone whether it is a store clerk or a head of state.” He acknowledges South Carolina’s reputation for tough politics but maintains his candidate will continue to “stay above the fray.”
Many observers agree that Huckabee’s populist economic message may play well here. Warthen says that South Carolina is “a good place for Huckabee” where he will draw strong support from the religious right and where many social conservatives do not share the traditional “anti-tax and anti-government” GOP message.
THOMPSON’S BIG CHANCE
Huckabee will not be the only southerner in the race. Thompson did well enough in Iowa to live to fight another day and South Carolina is his best and final chance to climb to the top of the heap. Before the polls closed in New Hampshire the Thompson campaign announced in essence that they had become a South Carolina campaign with staff, resources and advertising focused on South Carolina including the “Clear Conservative Choice” bus tour and a statewide media buy.
In his strong debate performance he attempted to persuade primary voters that Huckabee’s views on economics and foreign policy are essentially liberal and that Thompson is the real conservative choice.
Asked about Thompson’s appeal, Dean Rice, who is heading Thompson’s South Carolina team, responds: “He is rooted in the same conservative core values they are.” He contends that Thompson’s endorsement by the National Right to Life Committee (and its state affiliate), his experience in national security and defense policy in the Senate and his economic record of “reducing taxes and government debt” provide a complete package to voters. In contrast to Huckabee’s message of economic populism Thompson focuses on free markets and entrepreneurs and recognizes that “every dollar that goes to Washington is probably better spent in South Carolina.” He dismisses media “chatter” about money and contends that “it is easy to get lost in the process. We certainly have the resources to get our message out there.” As for the new fascination with “change,” Rice asks, “What are they talking about changing? It is not so much ‘change’ but credibility. Where are they rooted?”
Challenging Huckabee and Thompson will be John McCain, fresh from a win in New Hampshire. He hopes to gain more steam in Michigan tomorrow and avoid a repeat of 2000 when his presidential aspirations came to a crashing halt in South Carolina. Dawson says with his early win in New Hampshire and good showing in Iowa “McCain put some jet fuel in the Straight Talk Express.” In addition to renewed vigor McCain has one of the best organizations in the state, according to Dawson, who notes that his “people stayed in the trenches” even when his campaign took a nose dive earlier in the year. Over the weekend The State endorsed him, touting his foreign policy experience and integrity.
McCain’s state director Buzz Jacobs is confident that with a bevy of endorsements from GOP state-level office holders and legislators and a message that he has “stood up to support the troops consistently and to reduce spending” McCain will be successful here. He is “100% satisfied” with the amount of resources at his disposal and thinks McCain’s appeal as someone “ready to lead as commander in chief’ will resonate well in South Carolina (which has a large military and retiree military population).
Will immigration be a deal breaker for McCain with South Carolina voters? Clearly it is a top issue according to Clemson political science profession Stephen Wainscott who notes that this issue plus McCain’s involvement with the “Gang of 14” “ has not endeared him to the base” of conservative voters. However, this issue alone may not determine the outcome. Dawson says “There are times when one issue will disqualify a candidate but not this time.” According to Dawson, “Voters are looking for a solution. They want to uphold the laws, close the border, and identify these [illegal] people.” He says the issue as to whether we “are going to put them on a boat or a plane” is something most voters are willing to address down the road once the border has been closed.
ROMNEY AND RUDY
Romney will be coming off disappointing loses in New Hampshire and Iowa and will have to struggle to win his family’s home state of Michigan tomorrow. Should he lose in Michigan his campaign may effectively be over. If not, he goes on to South Carolina, but not vigorously. Friday he cancelled an appearance in the state and he has pulled media buys to focus on Michigan. Although he previously had invested millions in ads and assembled an excellent organization with the backing of popular Senator Jim DeMint, speculation swirled that he will effectively concede South Carolina to focus on potential February 5 states(if he survives Michigan). An interview for this story with Romney’s state director Terry Sullivan was cancelled without explanation on Friday.
Finally, Rudy Giuliani continues to wait for the showdown in Florida. Besting one of his major rivals here would do much to revive his effort and set the stage for Florida’s contest.
SOUTH CAROLINA ONCE AGAIN
As Campbell noted, there is a certain irony that despite months of primary calendar juggling, “here is little South Carolina, still playing the same role” to winnow the field and hopefully “catapult” the winner on to the nomination. Saturday will tell us whether we have a new leader or an emboldened frontrunner — or further chaos.