Candidates Prep for Key Primary in South Carolina

Presidential candidates are gearing up for what looks to be a frantic month of primaries; few will be as difficult or decisive as South Carolina's. Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University, and LaBrena Aiken-Furtick, a community activist in Orangeburg, talk with Michele Norris about both parties' efforts to win the state's hearts and minds.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

After Hillary Clinton and John McCain come from behind victories in New Hampshire, the presidential race is even more unsettled for both parties. The next big battlefield is South Carolina, a state where religion, race, states' rights and the occasional right hook can present a tricky minefield for candidates.

We're going to take a look at the road ahead for Democrats and Republicans of the Palmetto State. We began with the GOP seals(ph) since their primary is first on January 19th. Scott Huffmon is a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and he joins us now.

Welcome professor.

Professor SCOTT HUFFMON (Political Science, Winthrop University): Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Help us understand how the battlefield there in South Carolina differs from what the candidates thought experienced in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Prof. HUFFMON: Right. For the Republicans now, there's a large number of evangelical voters and we saw the impact they can have in Iowa. South Carolina has often been thought of as the test for the true conservative, the true Republican, meaning if you do well among the independents and the other states, that might not be enough here in South Carolina. It's a test of the party faithful and the very conservative party faithful at that.

NORRIS: So, John McCain was the big winner in New Hampshire. He comes out of that state with quite a bit of wind in his sails. Does he meet that test?

Prof. HUFFMON: He looks good to the voters in South Carolina because he was advocating the surge before Bush was. And now that there's a little less violence in Iraq, South Carolina, which is a very militaristic state, approves that. However, this state is really being focused on illegal immigration for at least the past year. It was huge in the 2003 congressional election. And John McCain has taken a drubbing from the Republican faithful so he comes in with a high on Iraq, a low on immigration and where it's - he might be helped as long as the focus is on international issues with things like the harassing of the U.S. military ships by Iranian boats, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, as long as eyes are looking outward, his foreign policy experience is going look good next to Mike Huckabee. But Mike Huckabee has that advantage of coming in and being so strong among the evangelicals who are so important to the Republican primary here in the South Carolina.

NORRIS: Now, all these candidates are now talking about that word, change. Is that a potent message there in South Carolina?

Prof. HUFFMON: Well, you know as some of my colleagues have said quite accurately, you know, South Carolinians aren't that fond of change about anything, you know? So, that is not necessarily the nature or the message that is going to do well among South Carolina's conservative voters. We've been resistant to change - well, you know, we fired the first shots in that War Between the States…

NORRIS: Oh, yeah, that war.

Prof. HUFFMON: …you might have heard that. So, you know, the message of change, which might have resonated in for a New Hampshire voter is not going to play out exactly the same way. The messages need to be tweaked for South Carolina. South Carolina is a different test.

NORRIS: Cauldron of big and important issues across the country on, particularly in South Carolina, security, immigration, the economy, cultural issues, which is the most important.

Prof. HUFFMON: Well, in the Winthrop polls that we've done are likely Republican voters, illegal immigration was number one, followed by Iraq, but no single issue took more than 20 percent. So, it was illegal immigration, Iraq, then security and terrorism followed a distant fourth by health care. You're right, it's a myriad of issues spread very thinly. The candidates have a lot of different constituencies to speak to in South Carolina. And because of our geography, they're going to have to zigzag the entire state to speak to.

NORRIS: They have to cover a lot of ground to campaign in South Carolina.

Prof. HUFFMON: Absolutely. And you have to spend a lot of money on media to cover the way our media markets work, for example, where I am in the northern part of South Carolina, all of my television stations come out of Charlotte in North Carolina. If you want to reach me, you have to buy time in another state, and that's true for the part of South Carolina on the Georgia border as well. And if you want to reach every region of our state, you have to spend kind of a disproportionate amount of money to reach them than you would in a more densely packed but far more numerous population state.

NORRIS: Now, I'm not trying to speak ill of politics as it is practiced there in South Carolina but things do tend to get a little bit rough and tumble when a…

Prof. HUFFMON: That's the kind of…

NORRIS: …tends to head that way.

Prof. HUFFMON: Right. That's the kind of description I've heard of South Carolina politics. Everyone remembers what happened to John McCain in 2000. In fact, he is - he fired the first volley that he's going to have his South Carolina Troop Squad out there. They were the terrible smear campaign from nasty flyers under windshield wipers to push polling. Any of that's already started here again. There have been…

NORRIS: I guess, it already started again.

Prof. HUFFMON: It has already started over Christmas…

NORRIS: Saying what?

Prof. HUFFMON: Christmas cars went out sniping at Mitt Romney's Mormonism, and so, the knives were already drawn. They're firing up the chainsaws this week.

NORRIS: That's Scott Huffmon. He's a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Thank you, professor.

Prof. HUFFMON: And thank you.

NORRIS: Now, we turn to the race for votes in the Democratic primary held one week later on January 26th. African-Americans account for almost half of the Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, and their support is key to victory for Democratic candidates.

LaBrena Aiken-Furtick joins us now to help analyze how the Democratic race is shaping up. Ms. Aiken-Furtick is a community activist in Orangeburg, South Carolina. She's supporting Barack Obama.

Welcome to the program.

Ms. LABRENA AIKEN-FURTICK (Community Activist): Thank you. How are you?

NORRIS: So, you're supporting Sen. Obama? Is Orangeburg going Obama or is it split?

Ms. AIKEN-FURTICK: It's split. You cannot call a winner today. I know we've heard a lot here about people who feel which one can win, not necessarily issue based but who can win? Right now, people are still saying, well, I really hadn't made my mind yet.

NORRIS: With Barack Obama running a fairly strong race in this - a very strong race in this contest, there was an expectation that when he headed down to South Carolina, the first state with a sizeable black population, that he would automatically draw a lot of support but that hasn't been the case. What's happened there?

Ms. AIKEN-FURTICK: Oh, no, it has not been the case. And again, once again, we've proven that African-Americans are not a monolithic people. They vote all over the place; they even vote in the Republican primary. He's new. He's different. Even African-Americans are not used to seeing someone of that stature in that position running. So, I think, for a lot of them, it's hard to believe. After he won in Iowa, that's what I heard, even in my family, I can't believe it. They just did not believe that white America would accept a black man running.

NORRIS: How did the candidates change their strategies as they head down to South Carolina? I want to begin by asking about Hillary Clinton first. Her husband is very popular in the state.

Ms. AIKEN-FURTICK: Yes.

NORRIS: She's proven to be very popular as a candidate, too, but when she was in New Hampshire, there are a few things that were said that might play a little bit differently on a place like South Carolina when she tried to chip away at Barack Obama's comparisons to John F. Kennedy or to Martin Luther King. Can she say those kinds of things in South Carolina?

Ms. AIKEN-FURTICK: That would be a little risky. She actually has a lethal weapon and that is her husband. He is very popular. He's even popular amongst some Obama supporters.

NORRIS: You know, Ms. Aiken-Furtick, in looking at the polls and the analysis down there in the state, it looks like African-American women, people just like you, are the swing voters in this race.

Ms. AIKEN-FURTICK: It does. And I know everyone is energized. Either way you go, either (unintelligible) Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton, you have history in the making, and I think people want to be a part of that history.

NORRIS: LaBrena Aiken-Furtick is a community activist in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Ms. Aiken-Furtick, thank you so much for talking to us.

Ms. AIKEN-FURTICK: Okay. Thank you.

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