The crowd at the Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach was feisty, with whoops and cheers for Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, though not so much for Ron Paul.
But it wasn’t nearly as feisty as the crowd that forced the shutdown of the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston before it could choose a nominee, after which the party split into two conventions elsewhere and nominated Northern and Southern candidates.
South Carolina bet wrong when it seceded from the Union in 1860 and fired on Fort Sumter in 1861 — the hall where the 1860 convention was held was burned down by Union troops in 1865 — and ever since South Carolina has not wanted to bet wrong again.
In that spirit Strom Thurmond, who waged a third-party candidacy against Harry Truman in 1948, two decades later backed Richard Nixon against Ronald Reagan at the 1968 Republican National Convention. Nixon and other Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections.
Two decades after that convention, Thurmond aide Lee Atwater got South Carolina to establish an early Republican presidential primary, and it has been crucial in selecting the Republican nominee ever since. Many South Carolinians hope they will do that again in the primary Saturday.
“South Carolina picks presidents,” said Republican state Chairman Chad Connelly in a video aired amid the Fox News/WSJ/SCGOP debate Monday night. “The winner Saturday night,” said Faith and Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed at its jammed tent meeting the afternoon before the debate, “will be standing on the West Front of the Capitol taking the oath of office.”
All of which tends to favor Mitt Romney. He got louder cheers than Santorum or Paul, and Gingrich got boos when he attacked Romney at the Faith and Freedom tent and at the debate. Romney has been leading in South Carolina polls this month, with Gingrich gaining only slightly and Santorum surging after Iowa and then falling back a bit after New Hampshire.
Both Santorum and Gingrich depict themselves as bold conservative alternatives to Romney. Santorum says he’s stronger because he beat Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Gingrich says he is because he’s polling better in South Carolina, where most voters remember his stint as speaker of the House and where Santorum has not done the intensive campaigning that impressed Iowans.
But neither has found a wedge issue that undermines the front-runner. In Monday’s debate Gingrich edged away from his attacks on Romney’s business record. Santorum took the alpha male role over Romney in one heated interchange, but in support of a proposal — voting rights for released felons — not popular with South Carolina Republicans.
Romney has been the target of negative ads run on behalf of Gingrich, Santorum and Perry, and the pro-Romney super PAC has been running negative ads, as well. Santorum has been hit as a “big government conservative” in ads run Paul, who repeated his charge in the debate.
The debate moderators spoke of negative ads in disapproving tones, but South Carolina voters don’t seem to mind. As South Carolina-born Andrew Jackson taught, if you believe in a cause, you should be willing to fight for it.
This can be carried too far. Perry, making a defensible point in the debate about federal intrusion on state issues, said South Carolina was “at war” with the federal government, which was once true but hasn’t been since 1865.
Santorum more interestingly pointed to a Brookings Institution study that showed that almost everyone who graduates from high school, gets a job, and marries before having children stays out of poverty — but that the Obama administration prohibits programs for at-risk girls from teaching abstinence or promoting marriage.
But this, like Gingrich’s spirited and convincing defense of his proposal for janitorial work for high schoolers, did little to distinguish his policies from Romney’s. The fact is that all three of these candidates, and Perry and Paul as well, have blemishes on their records from the perspective of tea party conservatives.
Except for Paul, they also have this in common: In opposing the Obama administration, they explicitly invoke the words and principles of the Founding Fathers. The debate riff that got a standing ovation was when Gingrich talked of “the pursuit of happiness.”
That history evidently still resonates. In the Revolutionary War, unlike the 1860s, South Carolinians bet on the winner. They seem likely to do so again next Saturday.