Commentary: South Carolina is ready for glare of GOP's spotlight

The Rock Hill HeraldJanuary 14, 2012 

The Palmetto State dodged a bullet last week when Texas Gov. Rick Perry surprised political observers by saying he would remain in the hunt for the GOP presidential nomination.

Just hours earlier, after a disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses, Perry had announced he was headed back to Texas to reassess his campaign - usually a sign that a candidate is about to cash in his chips.

Michelle Bachman, who finished behind Perry in Iowa, did withdraw the next day. Had Perry joined her and now-all-but-forgotten Herman Cain in the GOP dustbin, South Carolina would be in serious shape indeed. With unemployment stubbornly remaining in double-digits, this state can't afford any additional hits to its favorite quadrennial cottage industry.

Just weeks earlier, it appeared that Florida Republicans would make early primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina irrelevant by moving their presidential primary to the first week of 2012.

Iowa doesn't have a primary, preferring to demonstrate its preferences through caucuses. Few understand how a caucus works, but no matter. With only 120,000 people participating, the real question is why 300 million other Americans should care what happens on a winter day in Iowa.

New Hampshire's Republican primary may have even less claim to significance. With the possible exception of Nevada or New Hampshire's neighbor, Vermont, no state is less like the rest of the United States. Ironically, Granite State Republicans hold more liberal positions on hot social issues, especially abortion, than most of the self-proclaimed conservatives vying for their votes.

South Carolina, next in line, can make a good case that its Republican presidential primary is the first one that matters. With a population of more than four and a half million, we're the 24th largest state, putting us near the national median.

More than that, unlike Iowa or New Hampshire, this state has had an unbroken string of primaries that foreshadow the eventual GOP presidential nominee.

Interestingly, although South Carolina is viewed by much of the nation as a hotbed of evangelical zealots, tea party members and assorted bigots, the Republican primary has been won by such by middle-of-the-road candidates (for Republicans) as Ronald Reagan, both Bushes and - most recently - John McCain.

That portends well for Mitt Romney, who almost certainly will roll into South Carolina with a two-victory momentum. Few think there's a chance he could lose in New Hampshire, where polls consistently have shown the former Massachusetts governor with 40 percent or more of the projected vote.

In South Carolina, Romney appears to be favored by about 25 percent of likely voters in the GOP primary - about where he finished in Iowa and where he consistently has polled nationally.

While that's more support than any of his rivals can claim to this point, it also means that three-fourths of Republicans either prefer another candidate or have yet to make up their minds.

Clearly, Anybody But Romney (ABR) advocates make up a majority of likely Republican voters, but the fault lines dividing the ABR faction run deep.

In theory, supporters of either Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Ron Paul could decide to back whoever's left of that group after the primary winnowing process has taken its toll. It strains credulity, however, to imagine the religious zealots and libertarians, who make up a sizable portion of the ABR types, joining hands.

More likely, their favor will remain fragmented, and Mitt Romney will take the Republican nomination by default.

Let's hope that no more of the ABR alternatives fall out before Jan. 21. That way, South Carolina will bask in the national spotlight for the 11 days after the New Hampshire primary.

We likely won't be any wiser come Jan. 22, nor will most of us be any richer - advertising media and meat-and-three restaurants that host candidates being among the exceptions.

After that, America will turn its eyes to the Florida primary, and South Carolina once again will have to vie for national attention via The Colbert Report.

To the candidates themselves, the Palmetto State then will make a final, plaintive appeal, which undoubtedly will fall on deaf ears:

"Y'all come back soon!"

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service