Last week, televangelist Pat Robertson's endorsement of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sent pundits scurrying to declare a watershed event: A social conservative had backed a pro-gay, anti-gun, pro-choice candidate. Giuliani thus had an inside track on the Republican nomination. Rudy rushed to Columbia to capitalize on the endorsement, underscoring where the campaign intended the news to matter.
But not so fast. Voters still have to vote. And they'll be voting in a series of idiosyncratic statewide races. Giuliani has already largely written off Iowa, and trails Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, where Romney's early money and name ID have had the biggest impact. Yet Giuliani nominally leads in South Carolina, whose primary actually comes a couple days ahead of the Granite State tilt on January 22nd.
A couple of reasons.
For one, although South Carolina is still more socially conservative and Southern Baptist than many parts of the country, it grows less so by the year. Wealthy retirees with diverse corporate backgrounds stream to the state for its mild climate, low taxes, and golf. These are Republicans to be sure, but not necessarily of the social conservative bent.
For them, prosperity and security are voting issues, not gay marriage or abortion. And here Rudy's reflexive 9/11-because-9/11-remember-9/11 rap matters. These folks have reaped the benefits of America, and are not looking for the nation's savior, just a competent protector of their investment.
That may sound like a low bar, but after years of bumbling by the Bush administration, perhaps not so low. Besides, the competence question points to why I think Giuliani may also have appeal to state residents with longer memories and deeper Carolina roots. The Giuliani camp may or may not even know it, but his "steady executive in a time of crisis" meme echoes the career of Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. The Democrat was first elected in 1975 and won another four-year term last week with 63 percent of the vote.
It was Riley's take-charge attitude in the wake of Hurricane Hugo's 140-mph devastation of the Low Country in 1989 that cemented his reputation as a leader across most political divides, a guy who could be counted on in a crisis, a message that Giuliani never fails to try to drive home. And, what do you know, Rudy's looming terror threat was made real this summer in South Carolina by the strange case of the Goose Creek bombers.
You may recall the two young Islamic men who were detained by police near a naval weapons facility outside Charleston—the state is dense with such installations—and found to have pipe bombs. They were later tied to a bizarre video claiming to show how to use a remote-controlled model boat as a weapons-delivery device. That, in turn, had the rocket scientists at the Transportation Security Administration going ape over remote-controlled toys. Pack all this together and Benito Giuliani vowing to fight Islamo-terror may sound like your man from the bunker of your fairway spread on Hilton Head.
But not without a fight. Other candidates have zeroed in on Giuliani's high standing in South Carolina and are now moving to take him down a notch, especially the perplexing stealth candidacy of Fred Thompson. Thompson is starting to air TV ads in the state, yet has been shy about putting up any signage around the campaign's Columbia HQ. Thompson is practically required to have a good showing in South Carolina, with both Mike Huckabee and John McCain in similar binds. In other words, the beat-on-Rudy party is just starting in the state.
This is where we'll see what more liberal stances on gays, guns, and zygotes really means. At some point the Giuliani camp will have to trot out the likes of Robertson and other social conservative supporters to say, "yes, but..." and attempt change the subject, probably to the notion that only he can stop the Hillary Ascendancy and related Rivers of Blood. It will be an interesting, pivotal time in American politics. And, contrary to much conventional wisdom, it has not happened yet.
Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.