CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich skipped out of a scheduled appearance at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Friday morning, with campaign staffers citing sparse attendance — there were only a few dozen people in the arena.
Three hours later, 3,500 people crammed into Cistern Yard at the College of Charleston. The cell-phone network was overloaded as friends desperately tried to find each other. Students climbed the Spanish-moss-covered trees and leaned out the upper windows of Randolph Hall to get a better view.
They were all there to see Stephen Colbert.
I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Comedy Central star brought out perhaps the biggest crowd of any event during South Carolina primary week. He’s a celebrity, of course. And his rally was designed as entertainment, complete with cheerleaders, a marching band and a gospel choir. Herman Cain shared the stage for a bit and delivered a variation on his “Cain Solutions Revolution” stump speech. But he also indulged the crowd with an extended quotation from the Pokemon movie and a cover of Diana Ross’s “Believe in Yourself.” Clearly, humor was the goal.
Still, even if you assume that comedy is always going to appeal to more people than serious politics does, the Colbert rally didn’t make things look good for the Republican Party. The audience booed at the mention of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, booed for the idea that corporations are people and booed for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision. I couldn’t find many students who were committed to voting for one of the Republican candidates in Saturday’s presidential primary. “I don’t think I’m even registered,” said a student wearing a three-cornered Tea Party hat. On my way out, a PETA activist handed me a flyer declaring that because the “meat industry is the number one cause of global warming…. It’s time for a federal excise tax on meat.”
I’d been expecting much more conservatism from these students, most of them from Charleston College and the nearby Citadel. But, apparently, this is not where the future of the Republican Party lives. Only 42 percent of South Carolina voters between 18 and 24 years old supported John McCain in 2008. Even if there’s much less enthusiasm for Barack Obama this time around, I wonder if support for the Republican candidate will be even lower among young voters in South Carolina.