Since John Kerry’s win in the Iowa caucuses, I’ve been asking myself this question: What does a South Carolina “Kerry supporter” look like? Where do you find them?
I know where to find the Dean machine: Just hang out at any overpriced coffeehouse near the College of Charleston where students are listening to Radiohead and engaged in conspicuous smoking. You found ‘em.
And you can find the Sharpton supporters either at church or in the buffet line at a Florence, S.C. downtown hotel, explaining how Rev. Al’s luxurious suite and eye-popping room-service bill aren’t violations of the NAACP’s tourism boycott.
Clark voters? Some are military retirees from up north, some are confused McCainiacs left over from 2000, and some are Clintonistas thinking ahead to 2008.
And John Edwards supporters are, well, everywhere.
But what of the man of the hour, Sen. John Kerry? How could I describe his South Carolina constituency? I was stumped.
Then Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings endorsed John Kerry and I had my answer: They’re old, liberal, and can’t win a statewide election.
In an election cycle dominated by meaningless endorsements (just ask the “Dean Dream Team” of Gore, Bradley, and Harkin), Fritz Hollings’s public push for his fellow liberal stands out as a flash of inspired futility. Maybe the Democrats have a different take on these things, but I always thought you wanted endorsements from politicians who could theoretically carry the state in which you’re being endorsed.
Hollings, never one to deny the obvious, acknowledged his lack of influence with South Carolinians at the endorsement press conference, noting that he has no organization and his name won’t sway many people. He said instead that the real power is with Congressman Jim Clyburn. Clyburn, South Carolina’s only black congressman, has not publicly endorsed anyone since his first choice, Rep. Gephardt, dropped out, but Clyburn strategist Ike Williams has taken a high-profile position with the Edwards campaign.
In a way, the Hollings endorsement highlights all the reasons why Kerry has no chance in South Carolina. Kerry is even more liberal than Hollings, and Hollings’s social liberalism and embrace of high taxes have been out of step with South Carolina for years. South Carolinians have overlooked his relatively left-wing attitudes thanks to weak GOP opposition and the voter’s innate fear of change. Until Strom Thurmond retired last year, South Carolina had the same two US Senators since 1966.
John Kerry will not get a “good ol’ boy” pass. Instead, he presents South Carolina voters with the worst of both worlds: Hollings’s liberalism wrapped in a Boston accent and backed by the Ted Kennedy seal of approval. Add the fact that he’s from Massachusetts and Kerry has as much chance of winning an election in South Carolina as General Sherman, or (worse) Hillary Clinton.
Even after Iowa, Kerry continues to poll poorly in South Carolina, trailing everyone in the field except Dennis Kucinich. And why shouldn’t he? He’s a Massachusetts liberal, and the last time such a creature carried South Carolina was in 1960.
And while they won’t admit it, the Kerry people know it. When Hollings made his endorsement, Kerry had yet to run a single TV ad in the state and hadn’t campaigned in South Carolina since early September.
While Edwards and Clark have had full staffs on the ground for months, Kerry’s organization disappeared immediately after his announcement speech and has hardly been heard from since. The campaign’s spin is that they plan to do well among the state’s 420,000 veterans, but as Citadel poli-sci professor DuBose Kapeluck notes, in South Carolina, “they’re hardly a core Democratic constituency.”
So where is the Kerry constituency? It’s certainly not among black voters, who are unlikely to be swayed by the charms of Fritz Hollings. Hollings has a long history of using racially charged language (he’s known for using the word “darkies” in public and once commented that African leaders who showed up for a conference just wanted a good meal “rather than eat[ing] each other”) and was the governor who raised the Confederate battle flag over the state capital in 1962.
All of which means the buzz phrase reporters covering the South Carolina primary are going to hear from Kerry’s team is “74 and 55″–the number of delegates up for grabs in Missouri and Arizona, respectively. South Carolina only has 45, and when Edwards wins the bulk of them, the Kerry campaign will dismiss it as “home cooking” and change the subject to the Michigan primary four days later.
The best possible scenario for John Kerry, therefore, would be a strong, second-place finish by Al Sharpton, who is running hard in South Carolina. A strong Sharpton performance would become the big story out of South Carolina. It would also allow Kerry’s campaign to dismiss the Palmetto State primary as an oddball, irrelevant sideshow.
Which is probably pretty close to the truth.
–Radio-talk-host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia. He is an NRO contributor.