Even though the Democrats go to the polls a week later than the Republicans, who vote next Saturday, the Democratic race is somewhat easier to read. At least for now.
John Edwards's return to his storied home of Seneca will not be a happy one. Edwards is almost certain to drop out of the race following a Palmetto state tilt in which he is an afterthought, despite winning the state in the 2004 primary. His "son-of-a-mill worker" spiel has fallen flat in state that is either solidly Republican where the mills once were and/or too prosperous for Edwards' brand of class warfare to find purchase.
A disastrous trip to Clemson University, a fairly conservative campus where suburban and rural kids go to get degrees before landing in Atlanta, Columbia, Charleston, or Charlotte as architects and engineers—the oppressive hand of Edwards' evil oligarchy is fiendishly well-hidden in this process—told the tale.
Edwards staffers were having trouble getting Clemson University students to hold up his placards for the traditional campaign stop backdrop. Charlotte Observer reporter Taylor Bright captured this exchange:
"You guys want them?"
"I'll spit on it."
With Edwards defanged, is it going to be full-steam ahead for the Comeback Gal, Hillary Clinton? Well, no.
The other day Clinton, in trying to argue the need for experienced politicians to bring social movements into the realm of actual policy changes, seemed to suggest that Martin Luther King Jr. would have been nothing without LBJ to sign Great Society laws. Worse, Bill Clinton somehow managed to turn criticism of Barack Obama's dreamy personal narrative into an attack on "fairy tales."
This caught the political antennae of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the dean of black pols in the state and one who had thus far stayed neutral in the presidential campaign. To him, this sounded like the Clintons were dissing the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
This isn't semantics to pols like Clyburn or the network of black churches that continue to form the backbone of political life for blacks in South Carolina. The King Dream is not a distant rhetorical point for them, but a vital part of their own internal narrative and justification, one that is deployed weekly by these leaders. The Clintons have bumbled into attacking the legitimacy of the black leaders they carefully cultivated. Rumors are now afoot that Clyburn will endorse Obama as a result.
It was that black leadership support, along with what nascent labor movement there exists in a right-to-work state like South Carolina, that Clinton was counting on to counter Barack Obama's popularity with younger blacks in a very, very large pool of black votes in the state.
There is still time for Clinton to patch this rift up and the campaign is already moving to do so. And to paraphrase Robert Plant, crying won't help you but praying might do you so me good. Expect to see Hillary hit the black church circuit hard.
As for Obama, South Carolina is put up or shut time. His rally with Oprah Winfrey in Columbia several weeks ago drew a delirious crowd of 30,000. The state with both its large black population and sustained economic growth and prosperity seem ready-made for his uplifting and inclusive message. Maybe a book club, too. Obama is believed to be in the lead among South Carolina voters at the moment, but we all know how his supposed lead fared in New Hampshire. In addition, Hillary is on the air with a TV spot that hits all the liberal hot-buttons on health care and entitlements.
Did you know that the junior senator from New York single-handedly stopped George Bush from "handing Social Security over to Wall Street?" South Carolina voters do.
On the GOP side, it is Fred Thompson playing the role of John Edwards. Thompson has to make a dent or go home. To that end, Thompson spent last night's GOP debate beating on fellow Southerner Mike Huckabee and may have scored a few points on Huckabee's tax-hiking record.
Huckabee is in a dead heat with Arizona Senator John McCain, who seems to draw much support from the state's well of military and military retiree families despite his soft-on-immigration stance. Make no mistake, in Republican circles in South Carolina a border-long fence is an impossibly wish-washy position and the only open question permitted is when to round up the 12 million illegals in the country—now or two weeks from now. McCain may yet falter on this issue.
For that reason it is somewhat surprising to see Mitt Romney pack up and leave the state. The "CEO President" axed his line of ads last week.
Romney was endorsed by the state's hardcore "amnesty" opponent Senator Jim DeMint, while McCain has the support of major "amnesty" backer Senator Lindsey Graham. Romney backed up the endorsement with over $2 million in TV ads in the state, a campaign remarkable for the fact that no one seems to have seen the ads or taken in any of their stirring imagery and swelling music. This lack of impact together with the need to get a slam dunk in Michigan on Tuesday has Romney set to finish in the middle of the pack in Carolina.
To recap, we have a McCain-Huckabee tussle at the top, Thompson trying hard to get traction, Romney AWOL, with Rudy and Ron bringing up the rear. The Mayor of 9/11 is drawing his line in the sand in Florida among the high-walls of Del Boca Vista Phase II and is conserving resources to that end. Paul is merely playing out the string.
The only thing we know about the race is that, after the ballots are cast, half of these candidates will be lying flat on the field and unable to go on. It's about time.
Reason contributor Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.