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S. Carolina Crucial Test in GOP Race

Politics: Presidential candidates, aides believe that first Southern primary will begin winnowing process. A defeat in the state could be a mortal blow to Dole.

February 29, 1996|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Their race now deep in chaos, the Republican presidential candidates headed here Wednesday for Saturday's primary--a contest looming as a defining moment in their struggle for the nomination.

"The elimination process is going to begin in earnest in South Carolina," commentator Patrick J. Buchanan said Wednesday.

Likewise, Robert Lighthizer, a senior advisor to Sen. Bob Dole, said, "If you don't win South Carolina, you go on and try to do the best you can, but you are truly injured."

Indeed, if Dole's back is now against the wall in the GOP race, this is the wall.

After losing to publishing magnate Steve Forbes in the Arizona primary Tuesday, and falling to Buchanan last week in the New Hampshire primary, Dole badly needs a victory here to regain his equilibrium.

With that in mind, Dole campaigned on Wednesday at a new BMW plant in Greer, highlighting the fruits of international trade. By contrast, Buchanan was at an abandoned furniture-finishing plant in Clearwater, S.C., reminding voters of lost jobs. Meanwhile, Forbes campaigned in New York and Pittsburgh, Pa., and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander was in his home state and Georgia.

The four will participate today in a 9 a.m. PST debate in Columbia, the state capital.

With all the unpredictable twists and turns the GOP race has already taken, few analysts are willing to declare any single contest decisive. But a defeat here might be a mortal blow to Dole, who has long viewed South Carolina as his "firewall"--the fortress where he could either seal the nomination or make his last stand.

Even though South Carolina offers only a modest prize of 37 delegates to the winner, the stakes, in fact, are significant for all the candidates.

As the first Southern state to vote, South Carolina's decision will reverberate through a region that has become the cornerstone of the new Republican political coalition--and will dominate the primary calendar for the next two weeks. With contests looming in Georgia, Texas, Florida and other Southern states, a poor showing here could deflate Buchanan or leave Alexander virtually on life support.

Though the calculus of this campaign seems to change almost hourly, at this point most local observers see South Carolina as a two-man contest between Buchanan and Dole, with Alexander and Forbes trailing. "Buchanan is the competition here," said Warren Tompkins, a local political strategist who is directing Dole's effort here and across the South. Two independent polls made public on Wednesday show Dole leading Buchanan in South Carolina by at least 11 percentage points.

Proving Ground

With both a powerful religious-conservative community and a thriving suburban middle class--as well as an economy experiencing both the prosperity and pain associated with globalization--South Carolina is a key test. It will measure as well as any state so far where the balance of power inside the GOP lies on issues such as trade, international engagement, and the lengths to which the party should stress opposition to abortion.

After his disappointing third-place finish in Arizona, Buchanan is targeting his twin message of economic protectionism and cultural conservatism at disaffected blue-collar workers in this state's declining textile industry and its burgeoning ranks of religious conservatives. On Wednesday night, Buchanan turned out a large and enthusiastic crowd at an evangelical church outside Spartanburg.

As with Gov. Steve Merrill in New Hampshire, Dole here is depending heavily on support from Gov. David Beasley and his popular predecessor, Carroll A. Campbell Jr., who both star in Dole television commercials and deliver the sharpest jabs to Buchanan at the Dole rallies. The strength of their organization is the principal reason most local observers still consider Dole the favorite here.

"If Dole can't win a plurality victory in South Carolina, I don't see him winning in any other Southern state," said Earl Black, a professor of political science at Rice University who earlier taught for many years here. "Because there isn't any other state where he has an organization that is that experienced."

Yet the composition of the state's Republican electorate makes this prime territory for Buchanan. So far, Buchanan has run best with religious activists and other conservatives and weakest with moderates. In South Carolina, religious conservatives constitute between one-fourth and one-third of the vote and nearly two-thirds of all GOP primary voters classify themselves as conservatives of one stripe or another. By contrast, in New Hampshire just over half the GOP electorate described themselves as moderates, and only 10% as born-again Christians.

Competing for an electorate that already tilts to the right, Dole could once again find himself caught in the vise that frustrated him in Arizona and New Hampshire.

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