The center of gravity in the intense battles for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations has now moved South, notably to Florida and South Carolina. John McCain won the latter state’s Republican primary on Saturday Jan. 19.
Party caucuses were also held in Nevada over the past weekend. Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Mitt Romney won, reinforcing momentum from earlier success respectively in New Hampshire and Michigan. Democrat Barack Obama also secured important Nevada union support. Intensity of the close Clinton-Obama contest was reflected in argumentative exchanges in the Democratic debate Monday night.
Last summer, McCain’s candidacy appeared to be finished. Money had run out, staff was in turmoil and his poll numbers were abysmal. The victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina therefore represent a striking turnabout in fortunes. The former was a repeat of the Arizona senator’s success against George W. Bush in the 2000 primary.
That year, victory in New Hampshire was followed by defeat in South Carolina after a particularly ugly campaign. An extensive anonymous campaign accused the Arizona senator of having fathered an African-American child out of wedlock. The old-style appeal to racism decreased McCain’s support; South Carolina went to Bush, who went on to secure the Republican nomination and the White House.
This year, various smear efforts included incredible accusations that McCain had assisted the North Vietnamese during years as a prisoner of war. His campaign was swift to counterattack. The slander had no apparent impact, except perhaps to boomerang, as McCain won South Carolina with 33 percent of the vote in a crowded field, just ahead of Mike Huckabee with 30 percent.
McCain’s victory is important in personal and strategic terms. Within the party, he has long been viewed as a maverick. He has criticized big business and opposed Bush administration tax cuts. In a recent meeting with the editorial staff of The Wall Street Journal, the senator backed long-term tax reductions as long as accompanied by spending limits. Fiscal restraint was traditional Republican doctrine, but has been overshadowed in recent years by emphasis on tax cuts.
Success in the South has become vital to an aspiring Republican president. Enormously popular Dwight D. Eisenhower cracked the Democrats’ strong hold on the ‘Solid South’ in the 1950s. In 1964, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond moved from the Democratic to the Republican fold, followed by others. President Richard Nixon gave priority to a southern strategy, and the party since has steadily developed great strength in the region.
Traditionally, the South has been pro-military and interventionist. President Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat, led the nation into the First World War. Before Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was notably more explicit about defending Britain and opposing the Axis when speaking in the South than in the isolationist North.
The McCain campaign made special appeals in South Carolina to military veterans and groups, and is doing the same for the Florida primary on Jan. 29. The senator has consistently supported the Bush administration invasion of Iraq, while very critical of past strategy. The Florida primary is limited to already-registered partisans, providing a crucial test for a Republican candidate who draws heavily from crossover Democrats and independents.
Florida as well as the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26 represents a major test for Sens. Clinton and Obama. Regarding South Carolina, there is emphasis on the anticipated sizable African-American turnout, but the overall votes in both states will influence the Feb. 5 ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries, which involve more than 20 states.
(Arthur I. Cyr is a professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at acyr(at)carthage.edu.)