COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina Republicans pride themselves on running the primary that “picks presidents.” And while everyone is watching for New Hampshire tea leaves, the state Republican chair told me they shouldn’t bother — anything can happen here and nothing should be taken for granted.
The Palmetto State will be the 2012 reset button, SC GOP Chair Chad Connelly insists.
“Our voters are fiercely independent and pretty fickle,” Connelly told me over coffee at a downtown shop brilliantly named Immaculate Consumption. “They watch what happens in Iowa, they watch what happens in New Hampshire. They may take that under advisement kind of thing, but they’re going to make their own decisions.”
Connelly said the win in South Carolina is dependent on “who plays the ground game” — provides the kind of face-to-face contact that is a highlight of every early state.
“You know the air war is maybe a complement and a part of it, but the buzz is created in the churches and the ball fields and the basketball gyms,” Connelly said. “When you’re with your friends and family, it’s all about ‘I met so-and-so,’ or ‘so-and-so came to my town.’”
Of course Connelly’s got a vested interest in saying this: his party organization is hosting a massive debate (one of two before the South Carolina primary vote) next week, and like every party chair in the key early states, he doesn’t want to see candidates — and reporters and everything else that goes with all that — bypass the state in the future. And he’s pretty much the only political observer I spoke with in two days in Columbia that didn’t think the race here is basically Romney’s to lose at this point thanks to an anti-Romney vote that’s likely to be split among the frontrunner’s many opponents.
And you don’t have to take my sources’ word for it. No less than South Carolina Republican favorite Sen. Jim DeMint (who endorsed Romney in 2008 but has endorsed no one this time so far) told conservative radio Tuesday that “I think Romney’s going to win here.”
But Connelly also has a point. There are signs that this will be a very different campaign from the two that have immediately preceded it in Iowa and New Hampshire. For the one thing, it’s going to be incredibly nasty for Romney. While he and his allies were able to sweep out Newt Gingrich in Iowa thanks to a huge block of negative TV ads, Romney didn’t really face an equal measure of negative messaging aimed at him. Now he will. Gingrich’s Super PAC is dumping a gigantic buy on the state, promising to life a lot harder for Romney.
Romney also faces opponents with well-built infrastructure. And candidates like Rick Santorum have spent a lot more time in the state than Romney, doing their retail thing. Santorum surprised in Iowa thanks to his retail effort and ability to tap into the state’s evangelicals, and Connelly said Santorum’s looking stronger than expected here, too.
“I think Santorum’s going to surprise,” Connelly said. Gingrich has a “strong” ground game, he added and even mentioned Rick Perry’s large in-state staff. Romney, he said, is “ramping up.”
South Carolinians are used to negative ads, and negative ads are what they’re going to get. It’s a time honored part of things in the state, and Connelly suggested the negative blitz could move the polls around dramatically before all is said and done.
Of course a big chunk of that expected negative advertising — the rhetoric aimed at Romney’s time at Bain Capital by Perry and Gingrich — has become highly controversial in the Republican Party, rankling many prominent national conservatives. Connelly has to remain publicly neutral in the primary, but I asked him if as a Republican and a conservative he had any concern with the tone of the attacks on Bain.
He said all’s fair in love and South Carolina campaigning.
“I’m not in the camp of, ‘let’s don’t bring stuff up in a primary’ because I do think it makes a candidate stronger, no matter who it is,” Connelly told me. “And it also kind of vets things out so it’s out there and Obama has less chance to use it. It’s part of the primary fight. It’s not abnormal, it’s not atypical at all. It’s just part of the process.”