Something about South Carolina, perhaps the sweet tea, seems to change presidential candidates.
Up in New Hampshire, John McCain ran hard on two issues, strong national security and limited government spending. Down here, he mentions a few more: His 24-year opposition to abortion, the scourge of Internet child pornography, and his determination to nominate judges who "strictly interpret the Constitution and do not legislate from the bench."
Up in New Hampshire Mike Huckabee talked a lot about freedom, the Fair Tax and limited government. Down here, he has begun speaking in depth about his personal faith, telling crowds big and small, including roughly 2,000 who attended church in Spartanburg on Sunday, about his experience in Bible Camp at the age of 10, when he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.
Until recently, Mitt Romney ran as the only true heir to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, conservative on social, fiscal and national security grounds. Down here, he plays David to the Washington beltway Goliath. At a Wednesday night event in Columbia, he talked before a big blue sign that said "Washington Is Broken," and next to another big blue sign that listed his priorities. "Strengthen Our families" was relegated to #12.
As for Fred Thompson, he didn't show all that much enthusiasm for the job during his campaign swings through Iowa. But when he got to South Carolina last week, he released all the pent-up energy in an unprompted torrent of negative attacks on Huckabee. Then on Thursday, his campaign staff came to the grounds of the statehouse, where they offered reporters cigars (made in Nicaragua) to illustrate an accompanying press release that noted Huckabee had recently backed off his earlier support for a federal smoking ban.
All this in a state with roughly half the population of New York City, where every snow flurry, as happened on Thursday, is a major event. As voters get ready to go to the polls on Saturday, the stakes are enormous for most of the candidates still struggling for a foothold in the chaos of the Republican nomination fight. The fight is even more unpredictable because of a rash of push polls that have bombarded the state's residents, whose phones ring constantly with prerecorded attack messages. "The push is on," said Evelyn Wyche, a Columbia Democrat who got a call from someone attacking McCain's record on life issues. "They did not identify themselves," she added.
Both Huckabee and McCain, who are statistically tied for first place in recent polls, have predicted they will win the state, and Huckabee has said victory is a necessity. The Thompson campaign, which has been on life support for weeks, is banking on at least a second-place finish to give it a rationale to continue. Romney, who has spent millions of dollars in South Carolina, has officially ceded the expectation of victory here and left to campaign in Nevada, though he continues to spend money on television ads, in the apparent hopes of a third-place finish.
The two front-runners, McCain and Huckabee, are both running with significant constituencies, and significant problems. Huckabee, whose strength is the state's evangelical voters, flew businessmen over from Arkansas Wednesday to hold a press conference rebutting charges that he was a big-government conservative. Those charges, from a Washington fiscal conservative group called the Club For Growth, were leveled in yet another Wednesday press conference. "Mike Huckabee is no conservative," said Pat Toomey, who runs the club. His organization has been critical of McCain's record in the past as well, but at the press conference, Toomey declined to comment on McCain. Only afterwards, in a private interview, did he admit, "There are major problems with Sen. McCain's record. We have documented them."
McCain has no shortage of other people critiquing his record as well. His campaign has had to endure a string of third-party attacks, including one nasty message alleging that the former Vietnam POW had somehow betrayed his fellow American captives. While he enjoys a solid base of support in a state with a large population of active and retired members of the military, the former Vietnam POW is dogged in the state by the same burden that sank his candidacy in Iowa his stance on immigration. On Friday, at a campaign rally in Mt. Pleasant, one McCain supporter, Mike Schaffer, said he had called 12 voters that morning on behalf of the campaign. "Four of them were adamant that they were not happy with him, naming this issue," he said. Huckabee, who once sounded notes supportive of McCain's position that undocumented aliens should be provided some path to citizenship without having to leave the country, is running hard to the right on the issue, saying that all immigrants here illegally should be forced to return to their own countries. In events Thursday, he also began sounding old southern states' rights notes, which have been so explosive in past cycles. "You don't like people coming from outside the state coming down and telling you what you want to do with your flag," Huckabee said in Myrtle Beach Thursday, according to a report by CBSNews.com.
Thompson is similarly running to the right on immigration, even though he has in the past expressed support for McCain's comprehensive immigration solution. The campaign passed around fliers outside the state capitol knocking McCain, Romney and Huckabee for their plans to secure the borders. The flier shows McCain and Romney in photographs with the liberal Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. It shows Huckabee standing with his fellow Arkansas governor Bill Clinton.
As of Thursday morning, the polls showed a slight advantage for McCain, but pollsters were not putting much stock in the numbers. For weeks, opinions in South Carolina have been bouncing around, first with a bump for McCain after New Hampshire, then with a bump for Thompson after last week's debate, and more recently some slippage for McCain after his loss in Michigan. "It's muddy," said David Woodard, who polls the state at Clemson University.
That makes South Carolina a nice microcosm of the national Republican race for the White House, and it is the reason that all of the candidates are swilling the sweet tea in a final 48-hour quest to find a message that enough voters will swallow.