South Carolinians who thought Congressman Clyburn’s endorsement of John Kerry was a surprise had to be stunned during Thursday night’s debate when he received the tacit endorsement of his six opponents.
Thursday night’s debate was between a guy who is going to be the nominee and six other people who don’t want him to win but aren’t prepared to do anything to stop him. With the occasional exception of Howard Dean, who made a half-hearted attack in Kerry’s effectiveness as a senator, the other candidates were deferential to Kerry’s frontrunner status. Unfortunately, this deference merely solidifies the perception that he’s the frontrunner. If Edwards & Co. continue to let Kerry look like the presumptive nominee, that’s exactly what he’s going to become.
Which brings us to this astonishing and startling conclusion: John Kerry actually could win South Carolina. I still think Edwards probably will, but the fact that Massachusetts liberal John Kerry is considering campaigning in South Carolina alongside Ted Kennedy–and still has a chance to win the primary–is almost incomprehensible.
John Kerry is in this incomprehensible position thanks to the efforts of three people. The first is Rep. Jim Clyburn. Thanks to Clyburn’s ability to mobilize voters in the majority-black 6th Congressional District, John Kerry will do far better among black voters than once presumed.
Kerry should also be grateful to Howard Dean for all but dropping out of the South Carolina campaign. Now that Dean has written of the February 3 contests, some of his South Carolina supporters will drift away, many of them to Dean’s fellow New England liberal. Having Dean take a dive definitely helps Kerry in South Carolina.
Dean’s absence also helps Kerry because it hurts Edwards. If South Carolina were perceived as a two-man race between homeboy John Kerry and raving liberal Howard Dean, moderate white voters might be inspired to run to the polls and protect their party from the excesses of the Far Left. But Howard Dean’s performance has left uber-lefty Kerry looking relative moderate. Fencesitters for Edwards are more likely to say, “Kerry ain’t so bad” and stay home.
The third person John Kerry should thank is John Edwards. You know, there’s a reason nice guys finish last: It’s because they aren’t willing to do the things it takes to finish first. Watching John Edwards in the debate, it didn’t really seem to matter to him which candidate won the election. If Kerry is acceptable to John Edwards, then why should the rest of us care?
All of these trends are influential, but none are as important as the rise of “electability” as the most important issue for South Carolina Democrats, apparently beating out the usual voter motivators, regionalism and ideology. Nobody thinks for a moment that John Kerry speaks for South Carolina Democrats today or has any chance of carrying the state against President Bush in November. But more and more it appears that South Carolina Democrats don’t care. All they want is to beat President Bush and everyone they hear from (Iowa, New Hampshire, the national media) seems to be saying that Kerry is man for the job.
Unless someone knocks Kerry off of his throne before Monday–and Edwards seems to have decided he’s not going to do it–Kerry is almost certain to do better in South Carolina than long expected, and he has a legitimate shot at winning.
And if John Kerry wins South Carolina, he can win anywhere. He will be the nominee of the Democratic party. Period.
–Radio-talk-host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia. He is an NRO contributor.