O.K., what does it mean when Bill Clinton backs one candidate, and Jim Carville is backing his opponent? Darned if I know.
But that’s the story in South Carolina where prominent black congressman Jim Clyburn is publicly endorsing Sen. John Kerry while his most prominent adviser, Ike Williams, has been working hard for Sen. John Edwards for a week. Even in the Byzantine political world of South Carolina, this is strange.
It could be a sign that electability continues to replace anger as the dominant Democratic motivation in the primaries. Clyburn sees Edwards as electable in South Carolina, but he also sees Kerry as the most electable in November, so he makes the Solomon-like decision to support them both.
Rep. Clyburn was probably relieved when his good friend Dick Gephardt dropped out of the race. Gephardt was never going to be an easy sell to black voters in South Carolina and Clyburn knew he was facing an uphill task. When Gephardt folded and Ike Willams showed up on Edwards’s doorstep, the thinking was that Clyburn was taking the opportunity to make an easy sell. Edwards relates well to black voters, they like his familiar approach and, with Clyburn’s organization, Edwards was all but a lock. He wins, and Clyburn looks like a South Carolina kingmaker, regardless of who eventually won the nomination.
But now it appears there is an effort for the party leadership in Washington to rally around John Kerry. Kerry’s campaign announced that Clyburn’s endorsement, along with several others from Missouri, were just the first in a series of Gephardt backers joining their team. And in Washington D.C., Jim Clyburn is known as a team player.
He hasn’t taken on an easy task. Kerry’s liberalism has virtually no constituency in South Carolina, particularly among the OCBWs (Older Church-Going Black Women) believed to hold the key to winning the black vote. Partial-birth abortion and same-sex marriage aren’t their glass of sweet tea.
However, Clyburn’s endorsement immediately makes Kerry competitive in South Carolina thanks to the congressman’s organization in the Sixth District. His district is a gerry-meandering nightmare that sprawls from the urban downtown of Columbia to the tobacco fields of rural Dillon County (home of “South of the Border!”) to the Charleston coast. The result is a majority black, and overwhelmingly Democratic, district in the heart of a solid GOP state. There are enough Democratic votes in the Sixth to win this primary by itself.
And with Clyburn on board, the question “Why would a black South Carolinian vote for Kerry?” can finally be answered: Because Jim Clyburn asked you to, and he sent a church bus to pick you up and take you to the polls.
John Edwards is still likely to win South Carolina, and he may even win a plurality of black votes. But it’s going to be much tougher for him to win by the kind of margin that creates momentum on down the line.
Meanwhile, some of us are starting to wonder who the candidates will be talking to in Thursday night’s debate in the Peace Center in Greenville, S.C. Will Howard Dean play to the local audience, or will he speak to viewers in Missouri, Arizona, or even to the February 7 audience in Michigan? Dean has the least to gain or lose (probably lose) in South Carolina, and Wesley Clark’s campaign is also making noise about focusing on Oklahoma rather than “John Edwards’s backyard.”
With Kerry’s big new TV buy in the state and his big-time endorsements, he’s definitely bringing the battle straight to John Edwards. If Edwards isn’t dominant in South Carolina, how can he even be competitive in Michigan or Washington?
–Radio-talk-host Michael Graham covers southern politics from his home in Virginia. He is an NRO contributor.