Primary Mission
Someone forgot to tell Al Sharpton his party is looking for a winner in S.C.


Michael Graham

If you’re a Democrat running for president, South Carolina isn’t a battlefield: It’s a minefield.

First you have to somehow slip past the Confederate-flag issue. (Oops! There goes Howard Dean). Then you have to step around the flag-inspired NAACP boycott–a boycott that Senator John Edwards’s campaign handled courageously by saying that “while he would honor [it], that did not mean he necessarily supported it.” (Boom.)

Then you’ve got the problem of being a northeastern liberal with a potty mouth in the most socially conservative state east of Utah (Sorry, Senator Kerry). Or you could run on your credentials as a champion of Big Labor, and all twelve of South Carolina’s unionized employees will rally to your flag. (Goodbye, Representative Gephardt.)

Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, black voters are a major part of the South Carolina Democratic coalition, so there’s real opportunity to motivate them. You just have to be careful and not use race-baiting rhetoric that will alienate the state’s other major constituency: moderate, white Democrats. (Adios, Al Sharpton.)

And, finally, after years of Strom Thurmonds and Fritz Hollingses, South Carolina voters like colorful, entertaining characters. You don’t want to bore them into submission. (Can I get you your coat, Senator Lieberman?)

It’s hard to imagine a more problematic, less productive place for the Democrats to have a primary than the Palmetto State–a state that hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since 1976. So why did the Democrats choose South Carolina for their “First in the South” primary, an election so important that it’s regularly mentioned with the make-or-break contests in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Part of the credit (or blame) goes to former state-party chairman Dick Harpootlian, who convinced the national party that, as he put it, “winning in South Carolina will prove you can win in the south.” Harpootlian saw the primary as a cash cow for the down-and-out South Carolina Democrats. Unfortunately, the state party is so incredibly broke that, as recently as mid-November, they were batting down rumors that the primary might be cancelled for lack of funding. Those rumors continue today as Republicans speculate on what percentage of polling places the state party will be able to open on February 3.

There are even reports in the upstate region that Democrats are trying to recruit GOP poll workers to help out. Such is the strength of the South Carolina Democratic-party machine.

But Harpootlian was absolutely right about the Democrats’ Dixie demise. In the six presidential elections since 1980, Democratic candidates have carried a total of just nine southern states–an average of 1.3 per election. This despite the fact that three of those candidates–Carter, Clinton, and Gore–were from the south. In fact, if you take out Bill Clinton, the remaining Democrats–Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and Gore–carried a combined total of just one southern state: Carter won his home state of Georgia in the Reagan landslide of 1980.

And before you mock President Carter, note that this was a feat that Al Gore could not accomplish.

Meanwhile, the population in the south is growing and, along with it, the number of Electoral College votes at stake. But as the south becomes more electorally important, it is becoming less competitive for Democratic candidates. Enter South Carolina.

Just as the GOP has used South Carolina as part of their “southern firewall” to nominate establishment candidates, the Democrats are trying to create a “moderate’s firewall” to protect them from their party’s far-left fringe.

In other words, Howard Dean.

To many Democrats, Howard Dean’s success is George McGovern redux, the party clubbing itself into a coma by nominating a liberal who fires up their base and terrifies everyone else. Democrats do have a tendency to nominate candidates from the left side of the menu, a result of putting so much emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire.

Iowa politics is still greatly influenced by a tradition of farm-state progressivism that goes back to William Jennings Bryan. Dean’s unapologetic liberalism is popular with the same Democrats who send Tom Harkin to the U.S. Senate, which is why in some polls Dean is beating Gephardt by ten points or more, right in the Missouri congressman’s own backyard.

Meanwhile, Dean is trouncing Senator John Kerry in New Hampshire. Some recent polls give Dean a 30-point lead among New Hampshire Democrats, many of whom are Massachusetts liberals who’ve fled the high taxes imposed by the politicians they supported back home. If Dean doesn’t self-destruct, and if he comes out of Iowa and New Hampshire as a steam-rolling frontrunner, establishment Democrats are going to look to South Carolina to slow Dean down.

And that’s where the fun begins.

Sure, the Republicans have used the Carolina firewall effectively, but the Democrats seem to have missed the point of the South Carolina GOP primary. It isn’t a “conservative” primary or a “moderate” primary, it’s an “establishment” primary.

Lee Atwater, with the help of my good friend and brilliant politico Rod Shealy, created the South Carolina primary to give the organized, country-club interests of the national GOP a place to beat down any insurgent candidates and restore order to their party. And it worked. Whether it was Pat Robertson in 1988 or Pat Buchanan in 1996, South Carolina’s GOP machine has been able to stop every populist uprising in its tracks. Not only has there never been an upset in a presidential primary here in South Carolina, but the last time the winner was not named Bush or Dole was in 1980.

We Republicans are nothing if not consistent.

But that’s the GOP. For the Democrats to use South Carolina to rescue their establishment frontrunner, they need two things they currently lack: an establishment and a frontrunner.

Now, it’s not the Democratic party’s fault that they don’t have an established statewide organization. After all, they only have three statewide elected officials. And if they don’t have the same primary election expertise as the Republicans, that’s probably because the South Carolina GOP had more statewide primaries just in the year 2002 than the Democrats have had since 1996.

Former governor Carroll Campbell had an organization that could deliver for the national party. When he announced after John McCain’s huge win in New Hampshire that he was going to deliver South Carolina for George W. Bush, there was no doubt it would happen. Bush media darling McCain in South Carolina by eleven points.

But where is the Carroll Campbell of the South Carolina Democratic party? Former governor Jim Hodges? He had $5 million to spend in 2002 and couldn’t get himself reelected. Hodges didn’t even have a machine when he was governor, and his fortunes aren’t exactly on the rise.

Fritz Hollings? He’s on his way out, and even if he were seeking reelection, he’s far more influential in Washington than he is here at home. Charleston mayor Joe Riley, Representative John Spratt, Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum–these are all fine people to know and they have some influence with voters. But they don’t have an organization that can turn the tide for any of the presidential candidates.

The biggest name in primary politics right now is Congressman Jim Clyburn. Given that black voters are likely to make up half the primary turnout, and Clyburn represents South Carolina’s one black-majority congressional district, he is the closest thing to a king maker the Democrats have.

But Clyburn has no statewide organization or presence. So while he will have tremendous influence among black Democrats in his district–which stretches from downtown Columbia to rural Florence County and down to urban Charleston–his reach is somewhat limited.

Clyburn endorsed Gephardt in December, describing him as “always #1 in my heart.” Alas, he is closer to number 3, 4, or 5 in the polls. Three of the four most recent polls (Zogby, Feldman Group, and ARG) have Gephardt either tied with or trailing Al Sharpton. When Al Sharpton is beating you, it’s hard to call yourself a frontrunner.

Speaking of the good Reverend…

Al Sharpton is exactly the kind of candidate the GOP primaries are so good at stopping. And he’s also the kind of candidate who is perfectly poised to exploit the weaknesses of the South Carolina Democratic primary. He’s outpolling Howard Dean, he’s campaigned in South Carolina more than 20 times, and he’s focusing his campaign on black churches, a vote-rich environment. Sharpton is also registering otherwise disinterested voters at all of his events, and he’s got the one known substitute for political organization: passion.

It’s a passion that, thus far, is sorely lacking among the other campaigns.

“Nothing has jelled yet,” says Democratic activist Sam Tenenbaum, husband of U.S. Senate candidate Inez, and the (very) rare Kerry supporter. “A lot of the people I talk to still aren’t focused on the election.”

Laurie Thompson, a prominent Charleston Democrat and Riley ally, agrees: “Except among the hard core Democrats, there is limited interest.” None of the candidates is getting even 20 percent in the polls, and shifts in support for all of the candidates in recent months have been relatively modest.

These sentiments have been echoed in press reports by state-party chairman Joe Erwin (“It’s very muddled right now”) and Representative Clyburn himself (“It’s a jump ball”). Should South Carolina stay a four or five-way race, the inspired, activated Al Sharpton voters may give Reverend Sharpton a primary victory–and the South Carolina Democratic party a humiliating defeat.

Is there any candidate strong enough in South Carolina to stop Sharpton? At this point, the Democrats’ best hope may be Howard Dean.

That is, assuming he even bothers to show up.

As Dean’s fortunes have risen, his appearances in South Carolina have fallen. Since a debate there in May, Dean has been back just twice. Dean–one of the most organized and well-funded candidates in every other early primary state–had just two paid staffers on the ground and no campaign office as of early December. Yes, as his national fortunes have risen, so have his poll numbers in South Carolina, but they’re nowhere near his Iowa or New Hampshire levels.

And would this be a good time to mention his love-hate relationship with the “racist” and “loathsome” Confederate flag? It also happens to fly on the grounds of the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.

Perhaps that’s why it was noted with great interest when Dean’s campaign treasurer and former Virginia Lt. Governor Don Beyer told a University of Virginia crowd that “the Dean campaign’s primary election strategy is focused on the top three states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia” (emphasis added).

Virginia’s primary is February 10, just one week after South Carolina’s. After his Confederate-flag fiasco, Dean knows his popularity in South Carolina among both black and white voters is limited. He may just decide to pass up the Palmetto State primary and focus on the other six states with contests that day: Arizona, Oklahoma, Missouri, Delaware, New Mexico, and North Dakota.

Dean’s national campaign manager Joe Trippi has said repeatedly that he expects the field to be narrowed greatly on February 3. He and other observers expect that by mid-February the race will be down to Dean and, as Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report puts it, “the UnDean.”

“Even if Gephardt and Kerry have disappeared after Iowa and New Hampshire, I think Trippi’s right,” Barone says. “Because the press loves a fight and because it’s not clear to me that a majority of Democrats in big states like Michigan will cotton to Dean. He hasn’t been topping 50% in any polls, and many Democrat voters may consider him (a) too left or (b) too risky.”

Of all the states Dean would like to see pick that “UnDean,” South Carolina must be near the bottom of that list. So why wouldn’t he simply dodge this bullet and turn for his “First in the South” win to Virginia or somewhere else?

The Dean campaign denies all of this, of course. Dean’s South Carolina press secretary, Delacey Skinner, is quick to point out that 7,000 South Carolinians have joined Dean’s internet campaign and the “Generation Dean” campus group at the College of Charleston was one of the first to form in the nation.

Nevertheless, few South Carolina Democrats–and no influential ones–are publicly supporting Dean. And nobody can point out what a “Dean Democrat” looks like in South Carolina. Nationally, Dean voters tend to be wealthy, white, college-educated, computer-savvy, and very liberal.

In South Carolina, those people are called “tourists.”

All of which leaves South Carolina as possibly the most irrelevant and over-watched primary contest of the season. If Dean doesn’t show, what’s the point? And if a dead-end candidate like Sharpton picks up a win, what’s been accomplished?

The fact is, making a play for South Carolina simply doesn’t make much sense for Howard Dean. If he doesn’t show up, and he gets a “momentum win” anyway, great. If he stays away and the moderates do make a stand behind Clark, Edwards, or Gephardt, Dean will be at a victory rally in Arizona or Oklahoma talking about the vital Virginia primary.

There is always the chance that a big South Carolina win could launch a candidacy. That’s certainly the hope of the Edwards and Clark campaigns. Both of these candidates are polling relatively well, particularly Clark who is enjoying a minor January surge. But the Democrats’ ridiculously compressed schedule makes it difficult to turn a single South Carolina victory into a winning season.

And it’s possible that Gephardt, Clark, or even Edwards could pick up momentum in Iowa or New Hampshire and build on it in South Carolina. That’s certainly the hope of the anti-Dean wing of the Democratic party.

But right now, the best bet is that South Carolina’s February 3 election will be one that Howard Dean will be glad he missed. Those of us who enjoy great political theater, however, wouldn’t miss it for the world.

Michael Graham is a talk-show host and writer in the Washington, D.C.-South Carolina region.