Columbia, S.C — Like armies maneuvering before a great battle, Republican presidential candidates are massing their forces in South Carolina for what looks like a decisive moment of the 1988 campaign. Jack Kemp calls the March 5 showdown here ``Super Saturday.'' The stakes for each of the final four Republican contenders are immense.
South Carolina sets the stage for the largest primary in history - Super Tuesday - just 72 hours later, when millions of Southerners go to the polls.
George Bush, the front-runner, must win here. No excuses this time like Iowa and South Dakota. The South is the vice-president's base. To lose South Carolina would cast doubts on his entire campaign, and raise questions about his electability.
Robert Dole, the main challenger, must do well here to prevent a Bush sweep of the whole South. Otherwise, the vice-president may be unstoppable.
Pat Robertson, whose home is the South, has promised to defeat Mr. Bush here. That was not just braggadocio. His aides say Mr. Robertson must begin winning primaries, or his challenge to Bush will be hollow.
Robertson says: ``I'm at home. I'm in my natural environment. I'm the only Southerner in the race, and it seems to me this is the one I should win.''
Jack Kemp, the conservatives' best hope, must exceed expectations here, or his campaign could fold. He must ``stop the preacher [Robertson],'' as one of his aides says. Congressman Kemp is last in the polls and low on cash, but he is working the state hard.
So important has South Carolina become for Republicans that they're calling it ``the New Hampshire of the South.''
Bush is leaving nothing to chance. He brought in his Washington forces, including 21 congressmen who have been criss-crossing the state for him. New TV ads are in the works. And Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr., a Bush supporter, has cranked up his political network on the vice-president's behalf.
Meanwhile, Senator Dole's supporters are papering the state with 9,000 small, colorful signs. ``It gives the feeling of momentum to see them everywhere,'' says a Dole official.
Kemp has amassed his remaining resources for a TV blitz that may cost as much as $350,000, says his press chief, John Buckley.
Robertson also plans saturation TV advertising - ``on the 6 o'clock news, the 11 o'clock news, the morning news, everywhere,'' says an aide. The theme will be Robertson's Southern roots.
Kerry Moody, a Robertson aide, says many Southerners will support one of their own, even when they don't like him, as some did for Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater, a South Carolinian, was once so confident of a Bush landslide here that he persuaded his longtime friend, Governor Campbell, to hold the primary early. South Carolina was to be a ``fire wall'' for Bush to halt damage in case the vice-president was on a losing streak.
Mr. Atwater has told reporters in the past: ``If we can't win South Carolina, we're a dead duck.''
Yet two things have changed since Atwater concocted his South Carolina strategy - and they both have made the Bush staff apprehensive.
First, there is the Robertson phenomenon. The religious broadcaster has galvanized thousands of conservative voters with religious roots, both Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Using this base, Robertson stunned Bush and finished second in Iowa just behind Dole, even though only about 9 percent of the voters there are fundamentalists. In South Carolina, more than 40 percent are fundamentalists.
ABC News exit polls indicate that in last week's South Dakota primary, Robertson got 42 percent of the vote of fundamentalists. He won even more - 56 percent - from those who called themselves ``born again.''
In South Carolina, this huge group of voters - which has been Democratic in the past - has the potential to overwhelm traditional, middle-class Republicans, especially if its vote is split between Bush and Dole. Prof. Earl Black of the University of South Carolina calls the Robertson-Bush contest a fight between ``K mart and the country club.''
South Carolina does not register voters by party. So the primary here will be wide open - subject to a raid by fundamentalist Democrats and independents who see Robertson as a political savior.
The crossover factor makes this election particularly unpredictable. Although Robertson is running at only 19 percent in a new poll released Sunday by the State newspaper of Columbia, behind both Bush and Dole, few believe his vote will be that low. Privately, other campaigns predict his vote at 25 to 35 percent.
The second worrisome development for Bush involves archrival Dole. Last week, Sen. Strom Thurmond, the most revered of South Carolina Republicans, broke a long silence and endorsed the Kansas senator.
Dole ``is not of the elite,'' Senator Thurmond says in a transparent dig at Bush. Thurmond and Dole promptly began stumping around the state, with Thurmond praising Dole effusively. Dole surged to 29 percent in a Charlotte Observer poll, 25 percent in the State's poll. The two polls showed Bush at 41 and 48 percent respectively, both well below earlier levels.
Looking at the polls, Kemp concludes: ``George Bush will not get a majority here, or anywhere'' in the country. The vice-president's inability to overwhelm the opposition by rolling up majority votes will keep the race tight right through the final primaries in June, Kemp predicts.
Professor Black makes a similar point about Bush's vote-getting power: ``The vice-president hasn't even broken 40 percent yet in a primary,'' he notes.