South Carolina primary offers snapshot of GOP

| Friday, Feb. 19, 2016, 10:37 p.m.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — This state may be a good barometer of how Republicans feel nationally, political analysts say.

Republicans vote here today, 10 days after New Hampshire's primary whittled the number GOP presidential candidates but left the race unsettled.

“They make up the three different constituencies of the primary electorate,” said Clemson University political scientist David Woodard. “The upstate is home to Bob Jones University and many Christian conservatives; the midlands are home to the more moderate establishment-leaning voters; and the low country and coast (are) home to the fiscal conservatives.”

The GOP controls South Carolina's nine statewide offices and holds large majorities in both state legislative chambers, both U.S. Senate seats and six of seven U.S. House seats.

The overall primary winner will receive at least 29 of the state's 50 delegates, and the remainder go to the winners in each congressional district, said Josh Putman, a University of Georgia political scientist.

The state's 2.9 million registered voters don't declare a party preference; they choose whether to vote in this primary or the Democratic primary on Feb. 27.

Kenneth Battle, an Air Force retiree and board chair of the South Carolina commission for minority affairs, has “never been more excited to cast a vote in my lifetime.”

“The country faces so many difficult issues, particularly with poverty in both our rural and urban areas, and I see an opening for discussions with these candidates on finding solutions for those suffering in the minority community,” he said.

A North Carolina native who calls himself a “Frederick Douglass Republican,” referring to the Civil War-era abolitionist leader, Battle favors retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. His second choice: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Recent polling shows billionaire businessman Donald Trump with support from nearly 40 percent of likely GOP voters, a substantial lead over the other five GOP candidates. Cruz has been in second place, followed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Carson.

South Carolina voters traditionally have picked the eventual GOP nominee, Woodard said. An exception was in 2012, when they favored former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over Mitt Romney.

Charm and grit

With its sea islands, many churches, restored Old South plantations and Civil War history, South Carolina exudes southern charm.

Visitors come for the beaches, the golf courses, the seafood and to catch a glimpse of sea turtles or even alligators.

Charleston, founded in 1670, draws tourists to its French Quarter and Battery areas and offers horse-drawn carriage rides on cobblestone streets lined with pastel houses.

But nothing about South Carolina Republican politics is subtle.

“In South Carolina, you come to play hard and take the fight a little bit on the edges. ... The stakes are high here to win this state, and we make sure you are up to the task,” said GOP strategist Chip Felkel of Greenville.

This year's candidates have a record of personal attacks, just as in the past.

“There has been no certainty where this race is heading after the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said Brent Nelsen, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville. “I am not sure that changes after Saturday.

“The blows between the candidates have been hard and direct, and that is how we like it here. It is a contact sport.”

Who's got ground game?

Felkel and others anticipate a close race.

“Right now, Trump is the one to beat and, contrary to his shortfalls in Iowa politicking, he has invested in a ground game and is conducting traditional voter contact throughout the state,” said Jason Greer, a former GOP strategist who runs a small technology business in Greenville.

Voter Tom Finley, 72, of Greenville believes Kasich has “all the right stuff” to get the country back on track.

Kasich came here in sixth place with 2 percent support, according to a RealClearPolitics average of polling the day after New Hampshire's primary, in which he placed second.

Kasich has said he doesn't expect to win here. But his ads have flooded the South Carolina media market, and his three paid staffers and yard signs are as visible as those of more cash-fluid competitors.

“I was surprised at the visibility from the Kasich team,” said Finley, a former plant manager for Owens Corning in Huntington, Pa., who is alarmed by the national debt and longs for a conservative candidate with executive experience.

“I understand everyone thinks it will be Trump,” he said, “but I don't cast a vote because everyone is doing something. I take this process seriously.”

The other candidates have invested here, too:

• Rubio has 15 paid staffers in three field offices and the most crowded schedule among the contenders. Two popular South Carolina officials — U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy — support him.

• Bush has 20 paid staffers in four field offices. His advisers are counting on goodwill from his family name and the enthusiastic endorsement of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who quit the presidential race early on.

• Cruz has two offices; his campaign would not disclose the number of staffers but contends that hundreds of volunteers back him.

Isle of Palms resident Linwood Yarborough stood in front of a table of T-shirts, Trump campaign signs and sign-up sheets for voter canvassing at the Cinebare movie theater in Mt. Pleasant before last Saturday's Republican debate.

“Contrary to reports, we are doing thousands of phone calls and door knocks to make sure we get our voters out election day,” he said.

The former Charleston County GOP chairman hoped to convince undecided voters attending the county debate-watch party: “We are leaving no possible Trump vote behind.”

Economic divide

Hanahan Gymnasium sits well off the interstate in the state's low country. Children ages 9 to 17 filled it on Presidents Day, toting cases filled with archery bows for a big tournament.

Among the hundreds of supportive parents crowded onto bleachers was Wendy Evans, cheering on her son, Will, 10, in the Low Country Catholic Classic Archery Tournament.

Like most South Carolinians, Evans has been saturated with candidate signs and advertisements, but she remains undecided.

The stay-at-home mom started out liking Trump for his blunt assessments: “Part of what I like is that he understands that the Affordable Care Act hasn't been all it was cracked up to be, and he would work for a truly affordable and comprehensive replacement.”

She is giving Rubio a close look, too.

Mike Parker has taught archery for 10 years. The 72-year-old owner of a septic-tank testing company tried the sport “for something to do” in his 60s; two weeks after first picking up a bow, he won first place in a local tournament and won a national gold medal a month later.

Parker knows he won't vote for Trump but doesn't know if he will pick Cruz “or someone else.”

The economy will play a big role for low country voters, who have fallen behind in America's “new economy,” he said: “When people are using my services, that means new houses, new development and a brisk economy.” But that “has not been felt around here for awhile.”

Paths to winning

Two roads exist to a GOP victory here, according to Bruce Haynes, a Washington-based media consultant.

A native of Florence, Haynes learned the Palmetto State's rough-and-tumble politics as chief of staff to former Rep. Bob Inglis and as staff counsel to former two-term Gov. Carroll Campbell.

“There are the ‘interstate candidates,' which are Bush and Rubio, who will find appeal in the Richmond, Greenville, upstate areas — places which have seen great prosperity with the growth of all of the multinational companies,” he explained.

“Then you have the ‘backroad candidates,' where the old U.S Routes 11 and 17 take you to where the new economy has not caught on. This is Trump and Cruz country. They are the people that haven't caught the train of the new economy; they don't have jobs at Michelin and Boeing,” two of the multinational companies that opened plants in the state.

In fact, South Carolina is enjoying something of a manufacturing boom through those two companies and Bridgestone, Giti Tire, Continental, Daimler and BMW.

But that follows the painful death of the state's once-vital textile industry, which created “ghost towns in South Carolina's upstate,” in the words of onetime GOP strategist Greer.

Haynes thinks those people who “watched their hometowns decay, along with the broader culture ... feel threatened and frightened, and they are more likely to look to Trump.”

Salena Zito is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at szito@tribweb.com.

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