Hardly anyone noticed the major political event that occurred at morning chaple last week at Bob Jones University on the outskirts of this city known as the "Buckle of the Bible Belt."
Bob Jones III the evangelist university president and grandson of Bob Jones Sr. or "the Founder" as he called himself, announced who he had decided would make the best next president of the United States.
His choice: John B. Connally, the tall Texan, whose wheeler-dealer image has plagued his presidential campaign.
This was no little surprise. The Jones' college is an unabashedly Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone place that makes no apology for oldtime religion, a place so conservative that many on campus regard Billy Graham, who was dismissed from the school during his student days for breaking rules, as somewhat of a leftist.
Dr. Bob III, as he is called, has never made it a practice to endorse politicians although what is called the "Bob Jones crowd" has become a major force to be reckkoned within the local Republican party. If Jones endorsed anyone, it was assumed his choice would be his old friend and fellow conservative, Ronald Reagan. He had said as much when Reagan dropped by for a visit in January.
"I pray that God will put into office a leader who knows the Bible is a book that built America," Jones declared at the time. "Perhaps Gov. Reagan, the Lord will allow you to be that man."
This endorsement of Connally may or may not give the former Texas governor enough of a boost to carry Greenville County, the most Republican county in the state in the Republican primary Saturday. Reagan is the odds-on favorite, with Connally and George Bush fighting for second. Connally appears on the upswing and said today he though he could even beat Reagan.
But it will certainly help Connally, who has chosen the Palmetto State to make has big stand against Reagan. Even more important, the episode gives an intriguing, ground-level glimpse at how the politics of 1980 are being played in the South.
The city in the populous industrial Piedmont plateau is as good a place as any to observe the new Republic politics of the South. Greenville is an ole textile center with a history of cheap labor and vicious antiunionism (J. P. Stevens has 18 plants in the area) that in recent years helped it attract such multinational giants as Michelin Tire.
Today the city is booming with an unemployment rate of about 4 percent. It has more neon and fast food outlets than old southern charm.
Nominally, the area is Democratic. But it broke with the national Democratic Party in 1948 when it went with the Dixiecrat candidacy of Sen. Strom Thurmond and has never really come back.
The presidential campaign has been going hot and heavy here. Reagan, Connally and Bush have all visited in recent days.
"The battle is being fought house-to-house and street-to-street. The pressure is tremendous," county GOP chairman Charles Rush says. "When you have a presidential candidate visiting precinct meetings, like John Connally did here last night, you know the fight is in the trenches."
The battle has fracutred all the old political alliances. Rep. Carroll Campbell, the area's popular congressman, is Reagan's state chairman. Solicitor (District Attorney) Billy Wilkens, the county's second most popular vote-getter, is supporting Connally. Dick Greer, a 35-year-old chemical fortune heir who is running for state GOP chairman, is Bush's state chairman.
Reagan, who has frequently visited the area since 1968, was an early and overwhelming favorite here. That changed briefly after Bush's upset in the Iowa precinct caucuses. "If the election would have been held a week after Iowa, Bush would have been far and away the candidate to beat," Connally county chairman Mike Spiva says. "But things settled into reality after New Hampshire. Now it's really a Connally-Reagan fight."
The campaign has been mean and dirty. Bush aides have accused Connally of making a deal to pay $70,000 for black votes. Connally, in turn, has accused Harry Dent, Bush's chief political operative in the state, of being "a dirty trickster."
Newspaper ads have picutred Bush as "a two-time loser" (he lost two attempts to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Texas), "a professional Washington bureacrat" and a "flip-flop artist like Carter" who has "assembled a staff with heavy liberal influence."
One ad asks, "Are you next in line to be Bushwacked?" which it defines as "made to believe George Bush is not a liberal."
This is heavy stuff here. To say that Greenville is a conservative place is like saying a lot of Frenchmen live in Paris. "This town has always been conservative. It must be something in our water. Even our first settler Richard Tearis was a Tory," says Greenville News editorial page editor James McKinney. "This county is so conservative that it voted against seccession before the Civil War."
Bob Jones University, which calls itself "the world's most unusual university," is at the center of this conservatism. Students, many of whom go on to become fundamentalist ministers, are forbidden to smoke, drink, dance, hold hands, kiss or even go out on dates without chaperons.
Reagan's chief weapon in this atmosphere has been his true blue conservatism; Connally's has been Strom Thurmond who at 76 is a living legend in the state.
Thurmond and his 33-year-old wife Nancy have campaigned almost nonstop for Connally, who has been in the state almost continuously the last two weeks. "Strom gave Connally something he couldn't but, an organization and integrity," said one Reagan supporter.
Thurmond also gave Connallly entry into the fundamentalist Christain community, which makes up almost half of the vote in a typical Republican primary here, and in 1976 took over the county GOP structure from the moderates in a bitter coup. Connally started courting Jones last August, inviting the university president and a group of other fundamentalist ministers to his Texas ranch for a weekend.
But it was not until Thurmond sat Connally and Jones down together for a long chat last month that he decided to endorse him. He announced his decision to the university's 6,000 students and faculty members one week ago.
The chief reason for the endorsement was that "Mr. Connally was the only candidate to make real overtones to the Christian fundamentalists," a university spokesman said.
How much good that will do is debatable. "That place is divided as can be," says Greenville Mayor Jessie Helms (no relation to the senator), a Connally supporter. "So many of the students and faculty have been for Reagan for a long, long time. They're still for him. He is in their soul." r
Helms and almost everyone else here is reluctant to predict the outcome of Saturday's Republican primary, the first in state history, or even how many people will vote. Republicans have openly invited Democrats and independents to vote and turnout estimates run from 50,000 to over 200,000. a
Bill Carpenter's prognosis is about as good as anyone's. He does not claim to be a political expert, but his family has operated Carpenter's Drug Store on Main Street in Greenville since 1883 and he hears street talk.
"Everyone is for Strom. But people don't like to be told who to vote for," he said yesterday. "I'm a Bush man myself, I just like the way he talks."