It's time this anachronism is put in its place

Recent news that the Florida state legislature planned to move their presidential primary to Jan. 29 had South Carolina Democrats crying foul. That was the date state Democrats had chosen for their primary, giving it the heady position of being the first in the South.

State Democratic leaders have sworn to fight Florida's attempt to usurp their presumed right to hold the region's first primary.

State party chairwoman Carol Fowler said she would appeal to the Democratic National Committee to scuttle Florida's attempt to move its primary from March. "The DNC chose S.C. as an important early primary state because of our diverse population..." Fowler told The Post and Courier. "We believe that the process spelled out in the DNC's rules is most likely to result in the selection of the strongest possible nominee."

Florida's move has not caught S.C.'s Republican Party in as awkward a position as the Democrats, because the Republicans have greater flexibility in setting their primary date. That date is currently Feb. 2, 2008, but state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson left little doubt that his party would move it ahead to get the jump on Florida.

Since 1980, S.C. has held a position of influence out of proportion to its size in the presidential election process. That was the year state Republicans set themselves to be the first GOP primary in the South, coming after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. In holding their early primaries, leaders of both state parties like to point out that S.C. has a more diverse population than either of those states, and hence is a better representation of the nation as a whole.

On the face of it, this seems quite reasonable and it is true enough for the state Democratic primary. But it is a gross distortion to say that state Republican voters are a cross section of the American public. For one thing, Republican voters in this state are more than 95 percent white. For another, the state GOP is the home of a large number of extremists, hotheads, and soreheads who have historically manifested themselves in angry rhetoric and secessionist impulses. For these reasons, the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush can rightly be laid at the feet of the S.C. Republican Party.

Early in 2000, Bush's presidential campaign was on the ropes. On Feb. 1, John McCain beat him by 18 percent in the New Hampshire primary. The presidential candidates next turned their sights south, fully aware that no Republican since 1980 has won his party's nomination without first winning in S.C.

The morning after his N.H. beating, Bush arrived in Greenville. But his first stop in the Palmetto State was not at a GOP rally. No, GWB's first campaign appearance in this state was at Bob Jones University. Karl Rove, Bush's campaign manager, understood that in S.C. it was important for the candidate to publicly kiss the ring of Bob Jones III, president of the far-right-wing Baptist college.

But that was only the beginning. The Bush campaign had hired Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition to run a smear campaign on John McCain. In the days just before the primary, Reed and Robertson used their Christian Coalition mailing lists to identify their supporters and barrage them with phone calls, mailers, and e-mails, accusing McCain of fathering an illegitimate black daughter, accusing him of being mentally unbalanced, accusing his wife of being a drug addict. This is the kind of malicious false information that could only work on a highly credulous, Christian conservative electorate — in other words, the kind of people there are too many of in S.C.

Of course, Bush won the state Republican primary and went on to win the White House. Today we have a president who is openly dismissive of science in public policy, dismissive of traditional diplomacy, dismissive of traditional means of selecting federal judges and Supreme Court justices. And his lies have led us into a war without end and without victory on the other side of the world.

Needless to say, Bush is still enormously popular in S.C., even as his popularity is now below 30 percent nationwide. And that's the point: S.C. culture and politics are too far out of the American mainstream to be trusted when nominating a presidential candidate.

Maybe it's time the state GOP lost its preeminence among Southern primaries. Its influence has been toxic and pernicious to the national body politic, as extremists continue to take out their rage in the national forum. George W. Bush is just the latest example.

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