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S.C. Conservatives Look for Their Man

The Newberry, S.C., courthouse. (The Washington Post).

By Joel Achenbach
The worst thing you can say about a Republican candidate is that he's not really, truly, authentically conservative. So it was that Mike Huckabee, talking a few days ago at The Citadel, noted the attacks on him for being something other than conservative, and then ran through a litany of his achievements as governor of Arkansas. His voice rising, he said, "Anybody with an IQ above broccoli calls that conservative!"

The Republican presidential contenders have been trying frenetically to sell themselves as authentic, solid, unflinching conservatives. This is critical in the Deep South, where Republicans aren't necessarily "social conservatives" or "fiscal conservatives" or "national security conservatives," but just plain ol' conservatives -- hard right all the way down the line, and proud of it.

The Republican contest in the South Carolina has historically tugged candidates toward the right, as when John McCain waffled in 2000 on whether the Confederate flag should be flown on the state capitol -- a pander for which he abjectly apologized after he was out of the running, saying he had compromised his principles. Just a few days ago, Huckabee courted those who favor flying the Confederate flag, framing it as a case of outsiders trying to tell South Carolina what to do.

There may be some liberal Republicans in the Deep South, but they're as hard to find at campaign gatherings as an ivory-billed woodpecker.

"I am conservative to ultra-conservative," said Cindy Koon, 37, at a Fred Thompson campaign event Thursday in Prosperity, S.C. (which was originally called Frog Level, but "they couldn't get a train to stop at a place called Frog Level, so they renamed it Prosperity," she said).

Lorraine Waterfall of Newberry, asked where she stands on the liberal-to-conservative ideological spectrum, said, "Strom Thurmond conservative. Does that answer your question?"

It did, but she elaborated nonetheless.

"I'm concerned about the borders. I'm concerned about the economy. I'm concerned about socialism coming in. Of course, we already have some socialism."

Tom Barber, a county worker sitting in a pickup truck in Newberry as he waited for Fred Thompson (touring in a bus emblazoned with the words "The Clear Conservative Choice - Hands Down!") to show up, said he's "very conservative" and said he wouldn't vote for John McCain because "Some of McCain's choices have not been as conservative as I like." He cited McCain's opposition to the Bush tax cuts as an example. "Anybody who wants tax increases is not a conservative," Barber said.

South Carolina is just the start; more southern states vote imminently. Although Florida, with its culturally diverse population, doesn't generally get viewed as the Deep South, it is anchored to the continent by staunch conservative territory that stretches from Jacksonville to Pensacola and dips down the peninsula to places such as Ocala and Lakeland. Then comes Feb. 5, when Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas cast their ballots.

Thursday afternoon Thompson did a stroll through the sparsely populated retail area of downtown Newberry, S.C. As he got off his bus, he was greeted by a local supporter named Chad Connelly, who directed Thompson's gaze to a mural on the façade of the old courthouse. It shows an eagle holding a ribbon upon which dangles an uprooted palmetto tree. On one end of the tree, a dove holds an olive branch. On the other end, near the root-ball, is a gamecock, a symbol of South Carolina.

"The gamecock looks back in defiance," Connelly told me after Thompson had left.

What's that mean?

"I think it means, hey, we love America, but we're holding you accountable for the whole states' rights thing," he said.

He said Thompson doesn't have to repair relations with any of the various branches of conservatism: "He doesn't have to apologize to the social conservatives, or the fiscal conservatives or the military conservatives."

The question for Thompson is whether his message -- however conservative -- amounts to too little, too late.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 19, 2008; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Joel's S.C. Diary  
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