S. Carolina: a 'rebel state' again?

Tradition and conservatism predominate, but a swarm of newcomers with new ways give McCain momentum.

From the outside, South Carolina looks like rock-solid George W. Bush country.

This establishment-loving, tradition-steeped state has a history of favoring national front-runners - and of stiff-arming upstart candidates in its first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary. As the most conservative major candidate in the race - one who backs states' rights and opposes abortion - the Texas governor would seem the easy choice for Republicans voting on Feb. 19.

But that broad-brush portrait of South Carolina misses nuances that play to the advantage of anti-establishment Sen. John McCain. This is, after all, the "cradle of secession" where rebels fired the first shots of the Civil War, and that rebellious streak has not disappeared.

Just as important, the state is awash in out-of-staters, even more so than in the last presidential race. In the end, these newcomers may help to throw conventional political wisdom here to the wind.

Now, as McCain pulls even with Governor Bush in state polls, both camps are watching South Carolina for clues to how the rest of the South might go. Dynamic changes in this state are resounding across much of the region, and they are changing - to an unknown degree - the conventional conservatism of the South.

South Carolina, and the South in general, are "anything but monolithic," says Walter Edgar, director of the Institute for Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. The 1990s' economic boom, and the in-migration it sparked, has "changed the landscape of the region," he says. In some areas, the changes are big enough to alter the political balance.

In 1940, 90 percent of South Carolina's residents were native-born. Today, entire counties - especially along the coast - have populations that are more than half out-of-staters. These residents tend to be moderate Republicans and independents.

McCain's stronghold

That's good news for McCain, whose strength is along the coast, with moderates and centrists.

The war hero is hoping that his strength on the coast - as well as aggressive courting of the state's many veterans - will add up to a win. He's even hoping a few of the state's Democrats will cross over in the open primary and vote for him.

Bush, meanwhile, has plunged deep into the heart of conservative country - far away from the frolicsome coast. He hopes to woo fiery conservatives.

His biggest recent campaign event in the state was a speech at the ultraconservative Bob Jones University, a mostly white Christian college in Greenville, S.C., that disallows interracial dating. After being defeated handily by McCain in New Hampshire, Bush is counting on conservatives, who can represent as many as two-thirds of Republican voters.

He has also courted the state's political establishment - including Sen. Strom Thurmond, a man who ran for president in 1948 as a segregationist. McCain, however, has the support of two of the state's young-turk reformers: US Reps. Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford.

Meanwhile, the question is whether Bush's establishment backing will translate into popular support. At a recent basketball game in a raucous, packed-like-sardines gymnasium on the Bob Jones campus, there was more enthusiasm for the team than for Bush. The cheerleaders, who wear below-the-knee skirts and avoid high kicks, led the high-octane crowd in "V-I-C-T-O-R-Y" chants.

Ron Sharps, a Bob Jones parent and sixth-grade teacher, sits chatting with friends and cheering. His thoughts on politics are typical of the group: "Bush is acceptable," he says with little passion. "Is he the ideal? Well, it's hard to say."

Like many up here, he's skeptical, even distrustful of McCain. "There's just something about him," he says with a slightly furrowed brow. "Maybe it's all that free media attention."

For his part, McCain is popular down in the "low country" near the coast, a region that upstate folks have long seen as a "den of iniquity," especially the city of Charleston.

Upstate, downstate

Indeed, it's the "moralizers" upstate versus the "enterprisers" in Charleston, explains William Moore, a political scientist at the College of Charleston.

Many in Charleston - historic home of wealthy slave traders and high society - like McCain's thumb-in-your-eye approach.

"He's decisive," says Sandra, a Republican who cites Harry Truman as a favorite president and refuses to give her last name. She likes Bush, but isn't sure he has the mettle to be president. "Heaven forbid if we get in a war. I'm afraid he would say, 'OK, let's sit down - oh, could someone fetch us some tea? - and let's talk this out together.' " She rolls her eyes at the thought.

Decisive and independent. It's a less-well-known strain of what people here like, says Professor Edgar. In fact, "there's a streak of independence that borders on cussedness in South Carolina."

As it is turn outs, the outcome of this year's race could hang on the independent streak of South Carolinians.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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