MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Monday was supposed to be a big day for George Bush: His opening campaign visit to South Carolina 12 days before the state's primary election--a contest he hopes will propel him to victory three days later on Super Tuesday, when one-third of the delegates to the Republican National Convention will be chosen.
But on his flight to Myrtle Beach, after a quiet day off back home in Houston, Bush received a telephone call from Sen. Strom Thurmond and learned that the Republican patriarch of the conservative South had decided to endorse the vice president's chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.
Suddenly, a delegate-poor state where the Bush organization was exuding confidence took on added significance--giving the Bush campaign an opportunity to demonstrate victory even as it faced the opposition of the senior Republican official in the state.
"That raises the stakes for South Carolina, raises them quite high," Bush said of Thurmond's decision.
"By going first, three days early, South Carolina has a very unique opportunity. South Carolina will send a signal to the entire region," Bush said later at a rally at Myrtle Beach High School, adding that a victory here will carry him to triumph throughout the region.
His campaign manager, South Carolinian Lee Atwater, quickly tried to put pressure on Dole, saying that if the Kansas Republican can't win in South Carolina--where he is not expected to win--"he'll be like an iceberg hitting the tropics" when the rest of the South votes three days later.
Although the Bush campaign sees the contest in South Carolina as a race between the vice president and Pat Robertson, the former religious broadcaster, Atwater said: "If you can't win South Carolina with Strom Thurmond, then you're not going to be able to win any state on Super Tuesday"--the day when 803 Republican National Convention delegates will be selected in 17 states.
In coming days, Bush will be spending an inordinate amount of time in South Carolina, given the relatively small number of delegates--37--that the state will send to the Republican convention in New Orleans in August.
Key Link in Chain
Although South Carolina is a key link in Robertson's chain of support among evangelical Christians across the South, the Bush organization expects to do well here.
"We have a good opportunity down here. There's no question about that," said Bush spokesman Peter Teeley.
Indeed, the Bush organization is looking increasingly on the entire South with just such optimism--ignoring on Monday Dole's baiting in the wake of the vice president's decision to abandon the contests today in Minnesota, where Robertson's support is considered strong, and in South Dakota, considered Dole's political backyard.
After the Bush organization withdrew its advertising effort in the two states last week, Dole declared: "I'm a national candidate and I intend to contest every state. . . . You can't just select out areas and say we'll ignore parts of America."
But the vice president paid no heed, seeking instead, at the high school and a Rotary Club luncheon to put the focus on Dole's career in the Senate--as an architect of compromise rather than a maker of decision--and on his own experience in the executive branch.
The efforts of the Bush organization to play down Thurmond's decision notwithstanding, the timing of the senator's announcement was impeccable.
Bush was on his way to his first visit to the state in the past month--he'll spend at least two more days in South Carolina before the March 5 primary election, when word of Thurmond's support for Dole arrived here.
Late Thursday evening, in the wake of Bush's first-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, Thurmond had called Atwater, who learned much about South Carolina politics campaigning for Thurmond, at home to assure him he would stay out of the primary race here.
But, Atwater complained Monday morning as he awaited the vice president in this summer beach resort, "if there is one thing that Sen. Dole isn't weak in, it's how to apply political pressure"--a reference to the muscle the Senate minority leader can exercise.
The confidence of the Bush campaign in the South stems from several factors:
--His campaign claims to be operating a strong organization throughout the region.
--In a race in which Dole is being perceived as the more moderate of the candidates, according to some opinion surveys, Bush is in a position to attract the support of conservatives other than those favoring Robertson.
Even if Southern politics are tending toward moderation, Teeley said, "You're still talking about a conservative region of the country. Even though these people are in the mainstream, their basic philosophy hasn't changed."
--And, perhaps most important, in a region in which President Reagan remains extremely popular, Bush is counting on riding the President's coattails, on the strength of his seven-year association with Reagan.