NEWBERRY, S.C. -- If there is anywhere Pat Robertson can win a primary it should be a place like Newberry County, S.C.: rural, religious, tradition-minded. Michael Smith, the county Robertson coordinator, sits on a couch in the B. F. Goodrich store where he works, telling why he is for Robertson. He was afraid of sending his children, now 3 1/2 and 2, to public school, afraid they'd be learning evolution and humanism. He watched the "700 Club" and is on the same first-name basis with "Pat" that so many TV viewers are with their friendly local anchor.
Smith started by circulating petitions urging Robertson to run, and he has built an organization -- many of whose members are fundamentalists like himself rather than charismatics like Robertson -- which has called everyone in the county and which, on Saturday, is going door to door. Its workers will be handing out the glossy brochures and audiotapes supplied by the national Robertson organization. Asked about some of Robertson's wackier statements, Smith says he doesn't follow the news and then parrots Robertson's explanations; he talks of Bush's ties to the Council on Foreign Relations, which "they say -- I'm not an expert on it -- advocates one-world socialist government."
A mile from Main Street is Newberry College, founded in 1856 by Lutherans, where George Bush is speaking. Bush's Newberry County coordinator, Betty Dominick, who at 50 has been in Republican politics for 18 years, has brought in busloads of high school students who, together with college students excused from class, come near to filling MacLean Gymnasium. Dominick presents Bush with a red rose, which he pins on his lapel; the crowd is roused by former senator John Tower and Gov. Carroll Campbell, who stress the importance of what's happening here: this may be just a bunch of fresh-faced young people, making jokes at each other and staring at the TV cameras as well as the dignitaries on stage, but "we are choosing the leader of the entire free world." Bush gives what is, for those who see him only on network newscasts and debates, a strong, even spirited, speech, with a special tribute to Lee Atwater, his campaign manager, who graduated from Newberry College. So did the son of Gov. Campbell, who is a key operative for Bush.
The day before Bob Dole went tarmac-to-tarmac across the state with Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose support surely helped him get the 29 percent he showed in the Charlotte Observer poll. But Campbell -- who with Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire and Gov. James Thompson of Illinois is among the endorsements Atwater says he wanted most -- can do more.
Supposedly this is because a governor brings organization. But talking with Dominick as she cooks in the restaurant she manages, you don't have the impression of a giant machine. "We have a committee," she says; she has spent money on a breakfast with Marvin Bush and "hats and T-shirts for some of the girls"; she has a list of Bush supporters (no numbers) she'll be calling to turn out March 5. But the Republican organization seems dense only in affluent suburban areas, not here; Bush has "a paper organization," Dole's state manager Rod Shealy says. What Bush has been using, and effectively, is free media. Campbell is on the air every day and, Shealy complains, always manages to get Bush on.
Dole's campaign has neither the connections of Bush's nor the fervency of Robertson's. But Shealy, longtime Republican chairman in suburban Lexington County, argues he's built a strong organization by naming one coordinator in each of the 46 counties, by getting them to bring people in to meet Elizabeth Dole last fall in 39 of them and then by getting several dozen -- 70 he says in rural Abbeville County -- to commit to scaring up Dole votes for Election Day.
Such coverage can be spotty. Rudy Barnes, the Newberry County coordinator, didn't have Elizabeth Dole in, is "trying to get the word out" and get Democrats to vote for Dole. At 45, he left Columbia after eight years on the city council to practice law back home in Prosperity, and his wife runs a book store. But even a little effort can augment the Dole message that comes through from the candidate and from Thurmond; Dole is behind Bush only 41-29 percent in the Observer poll, with Robertson at 13 and Jack Kemp at 4.
But no one in Newberry County is comfortable with those numbers. There is little history of Republican primaries here; the Robertson supporters seem to keep mostly to themselves; Channel 10 and the Columbia State may have more influence here than local organizers. In Washington we hear that Bush is ahead and that Atwater has the state sewed up, and South Carolina looks very simple. From Newberry County, it looks puzzling and complicated and contingent -- not certain yet for anyone.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.