As the nation anxiously awaited the results out of Iowa and then New Hampshire, pundits were predicting with glee that the presidential primaries could drag on well into the summer — possibly to the party conventions. But a fear loomed over those of us anxious for a fight — namely, that there wouldn't be one. That unknowing cloud of momentum from back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire seemed destined to make South Carolina a speed bump, instead of a rest stop, for any presumptive candidate. But destiny provided the kind of nail-biting competition these types of decisions should always have, but rarely do.
Just before the New Hampshire primaries, former President Bill Clinton said coverage of Barack Obama's record on Iraq equated to a "fairy tale." Little did we know how prophetic that statement would be, not only for Obama, but for any of the three viable candidates looking to clinch the party's nomination. A fairy tale tends to have beautiful heroes derailed by circumstances beyond their control. In the throes of peril, they need saving, preserving. They triumph in the end, but never alone. Sometimes it's magic, but more often than not, it's the least of us who prove pivotal in guiding the story to its happily ever after. Relish your role, South Carolina. Vote. (That is, if you didn't already cast your vote on Jan. 19 during the GOP contest. You can't vote twice. At least not without the help of a fairy godmother.)
The Tale of RupunzEdwards
It's a waiting game for the well-coiffed former senator of North Carolina, John Edwards. He has been here before. After waiting through the two high-priority races in 2004, Edwards took South Carolina and raised enough eyebrows to make him the last viable contender in Sen. John Kerry's way. There wasn't a lot of success to follow, but it was enough to all but force a Kerry-Edwards ticket.
The problem is that there's nothing new about it. In a debate last week in Nevada, moderator Tim Russert all but accused Edwards of standing in the way of the nation's first black or first woman president. Ouch.
Edwards has yet to appear diminutive or less presidential than his opponents, and he certainly hasn't been advocating for the same old same old from voters. "If you're going to vote for me because Barack is black or because Hillary is a woman," he famously told the crowd in Charleston during a July debate, "then I don't want your vote."
The problem is, when you're talking about three strikingly strong candidates, biography matters — and "the son of a mill worker" was sooo 2004. As is the rich vs. poor narrative that has been Edwards' sole argument to South Carolina voters. It's not that the problem has gone away, but class rarely gets noticed when race and sex are in play.
We're not ones to play poll prognosticators, but a win in South Carolina looks to be a challenge. Edwards' best hope is to play off of any other candidate's disappointments coming out of Nevada and continue to press his argument. For him to win, South Carolina voters will have to climb those luscious locks. Edwards has vowed the state isn't his last stand, but if we don't give it to him, what other southern state will?
Economy: Savings tax credit, expanded child care credit, triple earned income tax credit
Environment: Reduce carbon emissions, world climate treaty, a New Energy Economy Fund
Education: Universal 4-year-old PreK, raise teacher pay, improved tests, and evaluations for schools
Health Care: Universal health care (mandatory), expanded Medicaid and SCHIP, new nurses in critical fields
The Tale of Snow Hillary
Bad things happen in fairy tales, it's a given. There's always an apple or a needle or an oddly named baby-napper. For Hillary Clinton, the apple was Iowa. The campaign had said at every turn in 2007 that the race was close, but they didn't mean it was close enough to lose the first challenge. Out of steam, Hillary got out and pushed the campaign on to New Hampshire where she literally tried to meet every Democratic voter. It turned out that she only had to meet one.
Diner stops in South Carolina are pretty hokey. It's like bringing sweet tea to New York — only a transplant is going to appreciate the effort. But the diner chats that are so popular in New Hampshire will now take on a near mythical meaning after Clinton's honest, emotional response provided the kiss of life her campaign was missing. Her self-deprecating, obviously frustrated explanation about the struggle of the campaign trail didn't make Hillary human (she was already one of those), but it made her one you could relate to.
"This is very personal for me," she said. "I see what's happening. And we have to reverse it. Some people think elections are a game ... (But) it's about our country. It's about our kids' future. It's about all of us together."
The next night, Hillary was thanking New Hampshire for squeaking through a victory that seemed sure to go the other way. All of a sudden, states like Nevada and South Carolina, where the campaign had seemed to abandon hope just hours before in lieu of a Feb. 5 focus, seemed in play.
While riding off into the sunset is an option, so is another nap in the glass casket. Highly publicized comments about the role of Martin Luther King Jr. and Lyndon Johnson in the civil rights movement were explained away, but that may not get the taste out of some people's mouths.
Economy: Middle-class tax cuts; new tax cuts for health care, college, and retirement
Environment: Reduce carbon emissions, cut foreign oil imports by two-thirds, double energy research
Eduction: Four-year-old PreK, increase teacher recruitment and retention, $500 million investment in community colleges
Health Care: Universal health care (mandatory), tax credits for small businesses
The Tale of Obamarella
Many have asked Barack Obama, "Why this ball? Why not wait?" His answer suggests 2012 (or 2016) will come well past midnight.
"At this defining moment, we cannot wait any longer," he says of key issues like health care, education, and the environment. "I chose to run because I believe the size of these challenges has outgrown the capacity of our broken and divided politics to solve them."
Of the negative characterizations thrown at Obama, those that seemed to linger in 2007 were inexperience and electability. Obama argued that his time outside of the Beltway was an asset, leaving him unaffected by Washington influences (be they lobbyists or pols). In his endorsement, Sen. John Kerry said he supported Obama not because of his years on this earth, but because of his sound principled judgement.
But the real question for Democratic voters was electability. Had you asked a Democrat at the end of 2007 if they'd vote for Obama, they'd probably have given you an emphatic "Yes!" But ask them if they were worried whether their neighbor would vote for him, and they may have hedged a little. Often, Hillary Clinton would stress that she had been "tested," alluding to Obama's cake walk to the Senate. After disappointing races in 2000 and 2004, the hurdle of a charismatic GOP candidate (be it grumpy old McCain or pastor Huckabee) left that word ringing in many an ear — tested.
And so, Iowa was the first test and Obama did better than pass, he broke the curve. Eight points ahead of Edwards and Clinton, Obama not only proved he was electable, but that he'd be able to bring in people who had never voted before.
If there was a reality check, a pumpkin at midnight, it was New Hampshire. With polls putting him leaps ahead in the second showdown, the competition had their concession speeches at the ready. Instead, Obama came in a narrow second. The loss didn't take the momentum out of Obama, but it showed what was obvious — either candidate could be the next president.
After a key endorsement failed to bring success in Nevada, it's up to South Carolina to prove the glass slipper fits. Blacks who make up nearly half of the Democratic voters will be watched closely to see if they not only come out for Obama, but if they come out in large numbers, suggesting a national movement in the run-up to Feb. 5 and, more importantly, November.
Economy: Middle-class tax cuts, universal mortgage credit, expedited tax returns, college and child tax credits
Education: Zero-to-five education, fully-funded education plan (anti-NCLB), increased teacher pay
Environment: Reduce carbon emissions, invest $150 billion in clean energy, double fuel economy standards
Health Care: Universal health care (not mandatory), advance research, fight AIDS globally
Lots of GOP Prince Charmings, but no crown
Eight years ago, Sen. John McCain's aspirations for the presidency were dashed as then-Gov. George Bush walked away with a primary victory in South Carolina. The state's 2008 primary would have been news making, regardless of the candidates, but McCain's second swing at the GOP nomination framed the story as a shot at redemption. As McCain's campaign fell in the toilet last summer, the story got lost in the broader campaign shuffle. But South Carolina gave McCain the happy ending he'd dreamed of.
"It took us a while, but what's eight years among friends," McCain told supporters in his victory speech in Charleston.
The candidate also spoke of the wintery weather that seemed to come and leave as polls opened and closed. "Thank you, especially for braving the very un-South Carolina like weather today to exercise the first responsibility of an American ... I think I can speak for all of the Republican candidates when I say South Carolinians are never just fair weather friends."
Actually, it would appear that they are. In 2000, more than 573,000 voters participated in the state's GOP primary. This year, turnout was under 400,000. These kinds of numbers likely scared the McCain campaign, as it pressed for polls to stay open in Horry County (due to voting machine malfunctions) in hopes of squeezing out a few more votes. It turned out to be unnecessary.
And what about those two other candidates who stressed South Carolina was make or break? Former Gov. Mike Huckabee said he had to win South Carolina and former Sen. Fred Thompson was the first back in the Palmetto State, saying he had to "do well" to stay in the race. Neither has exited since their loss here Jan. 19, but the two southerners needed a win in the "first in the South" primary to prove relevant. Without the win, they're running deathwatch campaigns.
With the dust settled in South Carolina, it would also appear that its role as kingmaker has been hijacked (at least in this year's cramped race) by Florida. McCain recognized this in his victory speech. "I am aware that for the last 28 years, the winner of the South Carolina primary has been the nominee of our party. We have a ways to go, of course. There are some tough contests ahead, starting tomorrow in the state of Florida."
A Time story filed the morning after carried the headline, "The GOP race comes down to Florida." The Jan. 26 race will be the first test for Rudy Giuliani's big state strategy, a second chance for Huckabee in the South, a momentum challenge for McCain, and, finally, a win Mitt Romney could truly call a victory.
As for the dirty politics of South Carolina's past, they were dredged up by nearly every news outlet between here and the London Bridge, making international celebrities out of South Carolina's conservative strategists as they gave reporters history lessons over Lizard's Thicket vittles. But, with the world waiting for the melee, negative advertising was unbelievably tame. The Washington Post called it "sedate" and noted one reporter who called the race "boring." But those who like their GOP politics sour can take heart — there are better odds this year than most that they'll be back in the trenches in four years instead of eight.