Primary postcards from South Carolina (1)

24 Jan

The four GOP candidates debated in Charleston, S.C.: Santorum, Romney, Gingrich and Paul. Gingrich received a standing ovation for his put-down of the "elite media" after moderator John King opened with a question about Gingrich's open marriage.

We need to read only a few descriptions of South Carolina politics before a few c-words keep coming up: combative, conservative and Christian.

So what did religion have to do with Newt Gingrich’s primary victory in South Carolina on Saturday?

Not a lot.

When it came to pulling the lever, voters who identified themselves as Christians, and specifically as evangelicals, pulled for Gingrich, a converted Roman Catholic. long-time Washington insider and confessed serial adulterer.

He beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily, 40 percent to 28 percent. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the candidate endorsed by a group of 150 evangelical leaders a week before, finished a distant third. “I like Santorum personally,” one pastor told me, “but he’s not strong enough” to beat the president. So much for the power of formal evangelical endorsements.

Gingrich, on the other hand, made the case that he’d be the Republican tough and distinctive enough to defeat President Obama in November. And getting Obama out of the White House was the top agenda item on GOP minds in South Carolina.

By 9:30 Saturday morning, Ashley Woodiwiss, a political scientist at Erskine College, knew the day would belong to the former Speaker of the House. Last-minute polls placed Gingrich up by 7 or 8 percentage points. Those were low-ball figures, it turned out. Only a week earlier, Romney was leading.

Gingrich’s turnaround came after one of his ex-wives revealed two days before the voting that he had asked for an “open marriage.” Instead of running away from the revelation, Gingrich turned it into an attack on the news media. At the Thursday-night debate, CNN correspondent and moderator John King gave the candidate an easy target by leading with a question about the affair. Gingrich went after King and blasted the “liberal media elite” (always a safe play). “That sealed the deal,” Woodiwiss said. “We like strong personalities.”

No kidding. South Carolina, after all, gave us Tea-Party favorite Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Joe Wilson (famous for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a 2009 speech to Congress about health care) and the late Sen. Strom Thurmond—not to mention the opening scene of the War Between the States, AKA the Civil War. South Carolina can be combative, remember.

Gingrich won every county in the state, except for a few around the largest cities, Charleston and Columbia, which Romney claimed. Gingrich took several of the most rural, far-flung counties by two-to-one margins.

I spent the day in Greenwood, a small town about 55 miles south of Greenville, to talk about religion and politics. The town is home to Lander University and about 23,000 residents, almost evenly white and black, according to the 2010 census.

It’s also home to one of the highest unemployment rates in the state (well over 10 percent), one of the highest and fastest-growing poverty rates in the country (about 38 percent), and one of the lowest high school graduation rates (about 30 percent of adults don’t have the diploma). By just about every economic and educational measure, Greenwood makes the rest of the state look strong.

I spoke to more than dozen people on Saturday, including a few Episcopalians, a Methodist and a Mormon couple. Most, however, were Southern Baptists. (That generally fits the profile of Greenwood County, which boasts at least 116 congregations for about 69,000 residents.)

By no means a scientific sampling, but only one person expressed the slightest concern about Romney’s Mormon faith, and none felt misgivings about Santorum’s and Gingrich’s Catholicism. Ron Paul attends a Baptist church in Texas, but that didn’t win him any of these particular votes. Serious doctrinal differences counted for almost nothing. Denominational identity counted for even less.

As for Gingrich’s moral baggage, Alvin Hodges, the senior pastor of Rice Memorial Baptist Church (and a South Carolina native), summed up the consensus view: Gingrich confessed, apologized and “tried to make it right. It’s not an issue now.” All is forgiven.

“Values voters are as pragmatic as anyone,” Woodiwiss, the political scientist, pointed out. “The No. 1 goal (for Republicans) is to beat Obama. Who’s best to beat him? It’s about ideology, not theology.”

More postcards to come …

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