COLUMBIA, SC - Election day began with bustling activity at the campaign headquarters of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Cars honked incessantly in response to the "Honk for McCain" signs. The frenetic activity, excited volunteers and hopeful organizers revealed just how much this campaign has changed over the last three weeks.
Until recently, the Republican establishment had seemed prepared to have a coronation ceremony, honoring Texas Gov. George W. Bush with the presidential nomination. Not only had Bush locked up the support of most Republican leaders across the nation, but he had tens of millions of dollars more than his closest competitors, and a daunting lead over all opponents in the polls. Meanwhile McCain was leading a seemingly quixotic campaign with little support in the polls and little money in the coffers.
Yet this all changed after Bush's disastrous defeat in New Hampshire. Bush had hoped that South Carolina would act as a "firewall", ending McCain's quest for the nomination. In his victory speech Bush said, "We come roaring out of South Carolina with a new energy out of this campaign." Bush pulled off an impressive victory here on Saturday, yet it is important to remember what context it came in.
Bush needed this win more than McCain. His campaign had to completely redefine itself after New Hampshire. After this unpredicted defeat, Bush was left floundering while his supporters waivered in allegiance. Meanwhile McCain's campaign surged with volunteers signing up, money flowing in, and even the Republican establishment warming up to him. Columbia's newspaper, The State, showed just how important this win was with its headline, "S.C. Saves Bush."
Because of its importance, Bush was prepared to do anything to win here, including spending millions of dollars and sinking to dirty tactics. But perhaps most importantly was Bush's noticeable shift to the right.
South Carolina is a very conservative state and a stronghold of the religious right. In fact, one-third of voters Saturday identified themselves as religious conservatives. On election night, Bush credited his supporters from Greenville, the state's center of the religious right, for playing a major role in his victory.
Bush has been using the slogan "compassionate conservative" to describe himself. He speaks about a broad and inclusive party, yet in South Carolina he was forced to retreat from those ideas. He depended on the support of right-wing constituents. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University in Greenville, an institution that enforces an interracial dating ban and vehemently opposes Judaism and Catholicism, but did not criticize those prejudiced practices.
Gaining the favor of the far right helped Bush in South Carolina, but after embracing this position, it will be hard for him to move to the center in future primaries. On Tuesday he must battle McCain in Arizona and Michigan, states more moderate and representative of the nation than South Carolina.
On Saturday night, Bush described the defeat in New Hampshire with a smirk, thanking supporters for standing by him "when times were tough." The expectation that the nomination will be handed to him is no longer true. Bush already has fallen off the height of his support. McCain has led a surging campaign from which he has emerged a contender - although last year he only garnered single digit support, and, as recently as January, Bush commanded a 45-point lead in a nationwide CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.
McCain has cut into Bush's lead, and there is no longer any sense of inevitability to the governor's campaign. A December poll by KPC Research showed Bush up by 33 points in South Carolina, and McCain managed to narrow that to a 12-point loss in a state that is not home to his local constituency.
Bush has gained back some momentum, but there are no certainties for him. Arizona and Michigan represent the most important primaries yet, not only because they have the most delegate totals on a single date so far, but because they are representative of the nation's demographics. Winning in these states will show more than a victory in a small New England state or in a conservative southern state.
McCain has surged from single digit support, to a dominating victory in New Hampshire, to a tight race in South Carolina. The future looks good for him. Bush's support is falling off in Arizona and Michigan, and McCain now is leading in polls in both states. Until all the primaries are over though, this Republican nomination is anybody's bet.
(Peter Brownfeld's column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily.)