And they’re off. The top three finishers in the New Hampshire Republican primary wasted no time in shifting focus to South Carolina, home to the first in the South contest, where voters take seriously their unbroken record of picking the GOP candidate since 1980.
It’s not that Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have given up. But on Wednesday, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman — win, place and show, respectively — brought their own versions of bragging rights to enthusiastic crowds that reflected their particular styles and constituencies.
Should the GOP be worried about Paul supporters in South Carolina? Maybe.
You could tell a lot from the cars — decorated with bumper stickers and slogans — in the parking lot of the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in West Columbia, and from the raucous atmosphere inside at a midday rally.
Nancy Mandeltort, a small business owner from Lexington, S.C., said she was “overwhelmed by government regulation and taxes.” Her husband was minding their company, which distributes electronics and small parts for pinball machines, and she was rushing back, but had to make time to hear Paul’s message.
During his speech, the crowd cheered every Paul line: “Destruction of currency undermines the middle class” and “most of the Constitution is restraining the federal government” or “when they call me dangerous, they’re calling you dangerous.” Some brought their own favorite line. One sign quoted Paul: “Truth is treason in the empire of lies.” As he worked the line after his speech, Paul complained about “the rumor that I don’t care about national defense.”
Lee Canaday, a 49-year-old Navy veteran from Lexington, S.C., described himself as a strict Constitutionalist who “was Ron Paul before Ron Paul.” Both he and Bill Rentiers, a concealed weapons permit instructor, said it was Paul all the way. “The rest of them don’t fit,” said Canaday. “I’m not going to vote for any more compromises,” said Rentiers. And they meant it.
Right man? Wrong year? Wrong state?
Huntsman’s message played well to the college crowd packed into a small room in the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He built on his message that “I’m always going to put my country first,” as he spoke of closing the partisan divide.
Huntsman, with wife, Mary Kaye, sitting behind him, spoke calmly; the applause took the same muted tone. The country is suffering from a “trust deficit,” he said. It “no longer trusts our institutions of power” or “our public officials.” He offered up experience and expertise — governor of Utah, ambassador to China — as he endorsed Paul Ryan’s budget plan as one way of getting spending down to manageable levels and solve what he called “an economic deficit.”
In answering questions, Huntsman got the chance to list resume highlights: service on health care boards, chair of the Western Governors’ Association, someone who has “seen this nation from the other side of the world.” But he didn’t forget why he was there. “I want your vote,” he told the students. He’ll need every one in a state where his recognition and poll numbers are low.
“People of the state don’t want to be told for whom to vote,” Huntsman said, perhaps trying to ward off Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement of front-runner Romney. Huntsman brought along attorney and former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster to endorse and introduce him. McMaster acknowledged Huntsman’s tough road in the state. “He understands business,” McMaster said after the speech. “He understands industry. He understands the world. He has seen the country from a lot of different perspectives.” McMaster described Huntsman as “the candidate for the time,” but said that a lot of times in campaigns, “reasoned responses and ideas” don’t get the attention.
They’ve got South Carolina all wrong, Romney supporters lament
The retired Lexington teacher was serious, though, about her belief that Romney is strong on deficit and economic issues. And she thinks the national media are missing the South Carolina story. “They keep saying South Carolina is all about social issues,” she said. Not at all. As Lynn Dempsey, also of Lexington, chimed in: “I don’t care what you smoke or who you marry, just keep your hands out of my pocket.”
After Haley introduced Romney, someone she praised as having “nothing to do with the chaos in Washington, D.C.” and took shots at “Republicans talking like Democrats about the free market,” Bull gave a running commentary as Romney took the stage. “He’s giving us his Iowa speech,” Bull said, as he ran through themes of putting the country back to work, standing up to Iran, appreciating the rights “the creator has endowed” and reciting the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.”
“He did better last night,” Bull said. But she was satisfied. It was also enough for her friend, longtime Romney supporter Gayle Clark. Clark’s 27-year-old daughter, Katy, who said jobs are the issue for young people, said hers is at a packaging and paper distributor owned by Bain Capital, Romney’s former employer, maligned by critics for eliminating jobs.
The buttoned-down, upscale crowd was cautiously optimistic, as was Romney. In jeans and an open-necked shirt, the candidate was one of the most casually dressed men in the room. Is he as confident as Bull and her friends that this is his year in South Carolina?
Does the party have a diversity problem?
It’s hard to miss. The Republican candidates are drawing overwhelmingly white crowds that don’t exactly reflect the diversity of a demographically changing country. In a day bouncing from Paul to Huntsman and Romney, South Carolina didn’t buck that trend.
At Romney’s Wednesday evening rally, I talked with folks who lingered after the campaign, and the candidate moved on. As progress, several pointed to South Carolina’s Tim Scott, the African American who defeated Strom Thurmond’s son on the way to U.S. Congress, and Haley, the very conservative governor of Indian descent.
Haley, at Romney’s rally, said she was surprised that U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin — both African American — and other Democratic state elected officials would hold their own critical “welcome” for Romney in a news conference in the state house on Wednesday. “I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone,” she said, as though it was impertinent for them to be there.
Inez Anders, a 22-year-old graduate student in Columbia and one of the few African Americans at the gathering, told me she was there to hear Romney’s views. The once staunch Obama advocate said she has an open mind but is disturbed with what she sees as GOP attacks that imply all blacks are on welfare or only blacks use social services. And she wonders if “all the mega-cutting” in their plans would cut too deep. “Sometimes, people need help.”
I asked Romney — who has just released a Spanish-language TV ad in Florida — about his campaign’s “diversity outreach” efforts. “Take a look at what I did in Massachusetts. You’ll be very impressed,” he said, giving me homework.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.