State’s Political Climate Hurting Role in Presidential Primary
BY COREY HUTCHINS
Bow-tied men in seersucker suits and women in pumps and pearls were streaming up and down Greenville’s Main Street May 5 on their way to the first presidential debate of 2012.
The Upstate South Carolina city is home to some of the most conservative voters in the country, so it was a fitting choice for kicking off the 2012 Republican nomination race. But this year, it became a scene for something a little different. Before the debate geared up, a man in an elephant mask gyrated in a hula hoop on stilts as a mime juggled beside him and a clown made balloon animals and danced around to carnival music.
“It’s a circus!” said a little boy. And it was. Sort of.
Greenville residents Timothy March, Jessica Wilson and Chelsea Santulli perform a satirical sidewalk show portraying the Republican Party as a circus sideshow before the May 5 Republican presidential debate in downtown Greenville. Photo by Sean Rayford.
A newly formed group called SC Forward Progress had orchestrated the mini-circus outside the debate venue to mock the current cast of GOP candidates.
In normal years, this debate is critical. The Palmetto State has accurately predicted the Republican Party’s nominee every election year since it gained its coveted first-in-the-South primary status in 1980. Since then, South Carolina has traditionally acted as a firewall against insurgent campaigns and voters have elected the establishment candidate.
But this year, South Carolina Republicans’ embrace of the tea party has contributed to an environment that might be scaring off mainstream GOP contenders.
The debate, sponsored by Fox News and the SCGOP, didn’t draw any top-tier candidates, likely because they felt the time wasn’t right to jump in the race, according to Sid Bedingfield, broadcast journalism professor at the University of South Carolina and 20-year veteran of CNN.
“[They] probably didn’t want to be associated with a debate that seemed to be second tier,” he says.
Mainstream Republican rock stars Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich decided not to attend.
“What Romney is up to I don’t think anyone knows,” says Columbia über-strategist Warren Tompkins.
Tompkins guided Romney’s 2008 South Carolina effort but has decided to go a different way this time. He’s sitting tight for someone with what he describes as an “adult-like” presence to excite him.
“I’m curious to see what Governor [Mitch] Daniels is going to do in Indiana,” he says.
Those who did show up to the Greenville debate included Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
The Associated Press and Reuters decided not to even cover the debate because of restrictions placed on press photography.
That those leading the GOP pack had dissed the debate rankled Greenville tea party leader Chris Lawton. He had a stern message for any candidates planning to run for president who skipped out on his hometown that night.
“It’s more of a polite etiquette Southern thing,” Lawton told Free Times. “You skip something this big? [We’re] not going to forget. They just made a drastic error.”
Tea party types have been pushing the narrative that South Carolina’s establishment tradition might be over and in 2012 the Palmetto State could go for a quirky underdog like Michele Bachmann. Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with the Columbia TEA Party May 19 and has support with the tea party crowd in the state.
But the idea that South Carolina could buck its traditional role, an idea that has already become ingrained in the national narrative, could severely diminish the value of the state’s unique position if the party eventually nominates a more establishment candidate.
The Palmetto State primary process has been slow to develop this year. However, the 2007 GOP debate in South Carolina was held in mid-May, just 10 days later than this year’s, and was well attended.
“To put it in perspective, last time the SCGOP held an early-cycle presidential debate, almost every candidate said they didn’t believe in evolution. And every major candidate showed up,” said one political operative who works for Republicans.
“Our point — to prove that this was a circus — wasn’t that hard of a point to make,” says Lachlan McIntosh from SC Forward Progress. “This is a situation where some of the most right-wing politicians in America are trying to pander to some of the most right-wing voters in America. And it has nothing to do with making America a stronger country or a better country; it’s just all about extremism.”
Apparently, that extremism is proving too much even for some in the Republican Party.