Anyone who watched the ongoing parade of presidential hopefuls into South Carolina (has anyone?) might wonder if they all landed in the same place. Each campaign's message and focus has been so narrowly drawn and often shaped by warped assumptions that the local political terrain has largely been washed away.
The Palmetto State has long been mischaracterized as Paleolithic in both culture and technology, instead of merely conservative and fairly adaptable to change. The difference this time around is that candidates across the political spectrum are already having trouble making their messages fit reality.
Take Hillary Clinton. She is lucky in that she has several interchangeable messages to trot out for the state's Democrats. One focuses on the redneck-ish Bill Clinton fans, the white, striving, small town businessman and the guys who work out of pick-up trucks. One is Hillary the Victim, useful for suburban women and celebrity hounds. But the one Hillary chose to lead with in South Carolina was champion of the African-American community.
Her campaign won over influential black state Sen. Darrell Jackson, who introduced Hillary to a packed house at historically black Allen University in Columbia. So far, so good. The problem is that South Carolina lacks the labor union structure, muscle, and discipline that Hillary's campaign depends on in urban black communities in points North.
This was evident when another key black supporter of Hillary, state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, opined that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) could never be elected president and would only drag the Democratic Party down to defeat.
"Every Democrat running on that ticket next year would lose because he's black and he's top of the ticket. We'd lose the House and the Senate and the governors and everything," Ford told the AP.
The Clinton campaign quickly got an apology out of Ford, but the damage was done. The black candidate was being told "No way" by the white candidate's campaign. Obama took the opening and riffed Jesse Jackson-style ("Yes we can!" was the chant) with a racially diverse audience in Columbia a few nights later. Another inflection point: Think of Greenville's own Rev. Jackson getting a chant out of a racially diverse crowd.
This points to another dangerous working assumption: that South Carolina's large African-American voting bloc is either going to stay with Hillary or break en masse for Obama. It could be that the old guard stays with Hillary, while young black voters got with the new guy.
But the most unconventional thing about both Hillary's and Obama's campaigns might be that they are in South Carolina at all. In most years conventional wisdom would hold that native son John Edwards would keep other contenders at bay. After all, Edwards did win the state handily in 2004, and has only kept his visibility high since then.
However, it is taken for granted that Edwards will have to "re-audition" for state voters after he repudiated his 2002 support for the war in Iraq. This has special meaning in South Carolina as it requires that Edwards also repudiate the other co-sponsors of the authorization legislation, among them the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (Both-SC).
Plus both Ford and Jackson supported Edwards in 2004. Edwards moved left and lost black support, another rule breaker.
Alright then, but if the re-invented, "evolved" Edwards is an unknown quantity in South Carolina, what does that say for his chances elsewhere in the early primaries? In short, where, exactly, does Edwards' new position on Iraq help him besides with the national political media?
Speaking of national media, here comes Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). His latest if not flip-flop, at least a quarter turn, on abortion during a campaign stop in South Carolina typifies the assumption that you can never be too conservative for the state. The problem for McCain is that he will never find enough single-issue conservative voters to make up for all the ones he half-offends on a range of other issues, from gay marriage to limits on campaign spending.
Besides, McCain's abortion slide it just a little too obvious not to offend in and of itself, not unlike his sudden blast at former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. From afar, this may look like McCain has found a clever way to run against the Iraq war without running against George Bush. But from the ground, in South Carolina, this was a dig directed at the hated former check-signer on behalf of all the active and retired military in the state.
Smart move then, eh? Ask Wesley Clark, who similarly counted on members of the military to vote their occupation and left South Carolina with all of 7 percent of the vote.
Flying considerably beneath the McCain soap opera is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In fact, the most significant political development of the past couple weeks in South Carolina may have been Huckabee's endorsement by the Campbell clan—the wife and son of the beloved former governor Carroll Campbell. This does not mean Huckabee is golden, merely that someone else was denied a perhaps vital boost.
And yet to make much of an impression one way or another is former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani . The common assumption is that his liberal social record will repulse the upstate area around Greenville. It likely will. But that record mated to his no nonsense stance on crime and terror and his energetic pro-America personality might connect with the more urbane party crowd from Charleston to Myrtle Beach.
Of course no one would be paying any attention to South Carolina if it did not come so early in the primary season. On the Democrats' early calendar, South Carolina is the most normal state—certainly with none of the neurotic economic obsessions of Iowa or New Hampshire, nor as uh, unique, as Nevada. On the Republican side, the slate is much more crowded and any one state is less significant. But South Carolina has no local "home" candidate, making it a fair test of national appeal.
In fact, pulling out to the national level reveals South Carolina's major contribution to the 2008 race. The state is prosperous and growing, just like the nation as a whole. The War on Terror and the travails of Iraq might have obscured it, but the national economy has been humming along at a nice pace for five years now.
Candidates who jump on the opportunity to find themes that are compatible with and build on the prosperity of South Carolina, as scary as that might sound, will likely find success with voters there and elsewhere.
Reason contributor Jeff Taylor writes from Charlotte, North Carolina.