We were standing in the sun in front of a strip mall in Rock Hill when this political year finally made sense.
I was talking to Nikki Haley, the Republican who leads the S.C. governor's race and has drawn attention nationwide. She had just rallied about 100 supporters at Shiland Village shopping center, spending most of her time ripping President Barack Obama's health care plan. She didn't talk much about her own political record, because there's not much to talk about. So far, in six years in the S.C. House, her biggest feat has been a bill getting legislators to put most of their votes on the record. And that bill hasn't made it through the Senate yet.
Haley says she never thought much about politics before she ran for office and her family didn't talk about it when she was growing up in Bamberg, S.C. So after the rally, I asked her if she has the experience she needs to run the state.
"I was never groomed to be a politician," she said. "But I started working for our family business when I was 13. I know how hard it is to make a dollar. People and businesses are hurting right now. We don't have time for politics."
In other words, the frontrunner to be South Carolina's governor downplayed her experience in governing.
And that's when the light bulb went off.
This is the Year of Amateur Status. And not in the Olympian sense, either - more like Open Mike Night at the local pub.
Locally and nationally, candidates with little or no political background aren't hiding that fact - they're running on it. And many candidates already holding office would rather not remind you, lest you think of them as (ewww) politicians.
It's working for Haley in her race against Democrat Vincent Sheheen, who has more experience (10 years in the General Assembly) and belongs to a family with decades of service in S.C. politics. Poll numbers have narrowed the race over the past few weeks, but FiveThirtyEight - a New York Times blog that analyzes the stats in political races - gives Haley a 91 percent chance of winning.
In North Carolina, former WSOC sportscaster Harold Johnson is neck-and-neck with Democrat Larry Kissell for a seat in Congress. (Kissell, too, became a first-time officeholder when he beat Robin Hayes for the seat in 2008.)
Johnson joins untested candidates such as Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO who has spent more than $119 million of her own money to run for governor of California; Carl Paladino, the wealthy developer running for governor of New York; and Christine O'Donnell, the professional talk-show guest who upset Delaware's former governor in the Republican primary for a Senate seat.
All those candidates are Republicans, and to some extent they're all benefiting from the tea party-ish mood of the country - a blend of despair over the economy, anger that Barack Obama is president, and longing for those Jimmy Stewart days when a regular guy (or gal) could govern with a level head and common sense.
Distrust and weirdness
Our country was created on the basis of deep distrust in a permanent political class. Many of our states put term limits on legislators from the beginning to encourage regular folks to run for office. Most of those states got rid of term limits soon afterward, because the constant turnover of officeholders made it hard for any idea to get traction.
Ever since, we've kept an uneasy balance. In the rest of our lives, when we trust our money to someone, we want experience; we want mechanics who have fixed cars and plumbers who have plumbed. But in politics, we've seen experienced candidates calcify into professional pols who have more in common with each other than with anyone who votes for them. That's why we can get so caught up in the rush of throwing the bums out.
Problem is, we have to throw somebody else in.
This has led to some is-this-really-happening? moments in this year's races - O'Donnell somehow ended up in the Monty Python moment of having to declare, in her first campaign commercial, that she is not a witch.
It also leads to more traditional, but still uncomfortable, political moments.
Even though they ended up together on the cover of Newsweek, Nikki Haley is no Christine O'Donnell. She spent years in the family business (her mom owns a clothing store) and tirelessly pushes the idea of making South Carolina more business-friendly. She's the daughter of immigrants from India, but she went to Clemson University and her sound bites come with just a hint of twang. She's the New South in all its blended glory.
"She's so quick on her feet - one of the most brilliant candidates I've seen," said supporter Gregg Reight, a self-described "Republican, Vietnam vet, Buddhist" who's 67 and lives in Rock Hill. "Plus there's a directness to the way she talks about policy. There's no equivocation in her answers."
But the other night in Spartanburg, in a debate against Sheheen, he came at her from both sides - for being a typical politician, and for not being savvy at politics. Again and again he dug at Haley over money questions - she was late paying her taxes three years in a row, and she made more than $100,000 in a hospital fundraising job that was created for her. (She says the hospital job was legit, and the tax problems help her understand the issues of other struggling families.)
At one point, Haley and Sheheen argued over a tax bill. Haley said she voted for it because it cut property taxes for homeowners. Sheheen said he voted against it because it shifted the tax burden to businesses. Haley said the plan was for the General Assembly to reduce the business tax the next year, but that didn't happen. It's the kind of thing a more experienced politician wouldn't say.
"It's interesting to hear Rep. Haley say that she did this in anticipation that something else would happen the next year," he said. "If you believe that about the South Carolina General Assembly, you sure don't need to be governor, because there are no guarantees in the South Carolina General Assembly."
The audience had been told not to applaud, but they did anyway. The next day, most analysts said Sheheen won the debate. And the poll numbers, although still on Haley's side, got closer.
Greene fits no category
Across the country, it's a mixed bag. O'Donnell is tanking in Delaware. All Whitman's money can't push her clear of Jerry Brown in California. But in Kentucky, Rand Paul is winning his U.S. Senate race in his first run for office (although he is the son of Congressman Ron Paul). And here in North Carolina, Harold Johnson is running so well that outside groups have spent more than $1.9 million against him.
Our system tends to sift coarse instead of fine. Sometimes a lump gets through, and sometimes that lump ends up in office for 30 years.
But over time, it becomes clear if candidates can't handle the complexities of governing in a country that's 237 years beyond the original tea party.
We might keep electing them anyway. But we know.
You might have noticed that we have gotten this far without talking about the one true amateur of this political season. That's because no category fits Alvin Greene.
Nobody knew he was running. Nobody is sure how he scratched up the $10,000 to enter the race. Nobody expected him to win the Democratic primary to face Republican incumbent Sen. Jim DeMint. And nobody expected the dramatic and hilarious piece of performance art that his campaign became.
He has suggested selling action figures of himself to raise money for the state. He has done national TV interviews while acting like a hypnosis victim. He has howled like a coyote inside his house to discourage a reporter from sticking around.
The essence of his run for office can be found in a single YouTube clip. A TV station from Columbia is doing a live shot from the S.C. State Fair. A crowd forms behind the reporter. All of a sudden you see Greene push his way through the crowd until he's right up front. He doesn't ask to be interviewed, doesn't say a word. He just stands there for a moment. And then, on live TV, he does the old "rabbit ears" gesture behind the reporter's head.
It's something you'd expect from a 12-year-old, not a man who is on the ballot for the United States Senate. But, in a strange way, it's part of what we want in a candidate. A politician who doesn't act like a politician. A regular guy. Somebody real.
Then again, it's still unclear why Greene was discharged from the military. And he's facing misdemeanor and felony charges related to an accusation that he showed online porn to a University of South Carolina student in a computer lab.
Maybe Greene's purpose, in this strange election year, is to serve as a reminder: We want our politicians to be real. But not too real.