By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
TO ALL THE candidates seeking the presidency of the United States of America: Welcome to South Carolina. Iowa is behind you; so is New Hampshire, and we understand that we are to have your undivided attention for the next couple of weeks, which is gratifying.
So let’s take advantage of the opportunity. The South Carolina primaries have little purpose unless we learn more about you than we have thus far, so we have a few matters we’d like you to address while you’re here.
Let’s do Republicans first, since y’all face S.C. voters first (on the 19th) and come back to the Democrats (after the cliffhanger night Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton just went through, they could probably do with a rest today).
We’d like some specifics beyond the vehement claims that pretty much each and every one of you is “the real conservative” in the race.
We’ll start with John McCain, the big winner in New Hampshire Tuesday.
You’re a war hero, and you’ve got the most experience in national defense and foreign affairs. You take a back seat to no one in fighting government waste. You were for a “surge” in Iraq long before the White House even considered the idea, and you weren’t afraid to say so. It’s no surprise that you lead among retired military officers, and others who have been there and done that.
But folks who are not retired would like some reassurance that the oldest man in the race, with a spotty medical history, is up to the world’s most demanding job.
Most of all, though, South Carolinians need to better understand your position on immigration. You’re the one who decided to try to lead on this radioactive issue in the middle of a campaign, and plenty of folks around here don’t like the direction you chose. Start explaining.
Next, Mike Huckabee. You have qualities that Sen. McCain lacks: You’re (relatively) young, fresh, new and exciting. As a Baptist preacher, you’re definitely in sync with S.C. Republicans on cultural issues. More than that, you are on the cutting edge of a new kind of Republicanism, one that is more attuned to the concerns of ordinary working people, from health care to education.
But let’s look at some headlines from this week: The U.S. Navy almost had to blow some Iranian gunboats out of the water. Hundreds are dead in Kenya, one of the few African countries we’d thought immune to such political violence. Pakistan, nuclear power and current address of Osama bin Laden, continues to teeter on the edge of chaos after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. I could go on.
Every day, something that threatens the security of this country happens in yet another hot spot, calling for a depth of knowledge and experience for which on-the-job training is no substitute. Those blank looks you’ve given when asked about current events are disturbing. Reassure us. We know you don’t get daily intelligence briefings yet, but you could at least read the paper.
Mitt Romney, you come across as Central Casting’s idea of a Republican: Perfect coif, square jaw, a private-sector portfolio that confirms your can-do credentials. Moreover, as governor of Massachusetts you presided over health care reform that many other states are looking to as a model.
But increasingly, 21st century Republicans are less impressed by a business suit, and I think you’ll find South Carolinians a lot like Iowans in that regard. You’ve got to have more to offer.
Also, voters here would like to hear more positive reasons to vote for you, and less about what’s wrong with everybody else. In all the years since I’ve been getting e-mails, I have never seen anything like the blizzard of releases from your folks trashing this or that rival.
After the nasty whispering campaign that sank Sen. McCain in 2000, South Carolinians have had a bellyful of the whole “going negative” thing. Just forget the other guys, and tell us what’s good about you.
As for Rudy Giuliani, we know you’re a tough guy, and a tough guy can be a good thing to have in the White House. You inspired the nation through some of Gotham’s darkest days, and you took on all Five Families at once as a mob-busting federal prosecutor, which is why John Gotti and some others on the Commission wanted to have you whacked. You’re definitely a man of respect.
But if you do bother to campaign down here, South Carolina Republicans might be forgiven for wondering whether you’re one of them. You were doing OK in polls a couple of months ago, but let’s face it — that was just the early national media buzz, and we’ve gotten past that.
You need to do some fast talking — we hear New Yorkers are good at that — about some of those “cultural issues” that, to put it mildly, distinguish you from candidates who happen to be Baptist preachers.
Finally, Fred Thompson — you certainly have no need for a translator. As your wife, Jeri, reminded me when she dropped by our office Tuesday, you speak fluent Southern.
But there’s a reason y’all were campaigning down here rather than up in New Hampshire: After the biggest “will he or won’t he” buildup in modern political history, your campaign failed to catch fire nationally after it finally got rolling.
That could be because, while you can play a “conservative” well on TV, you have yet to communicate exactly what you bring to the campaign that other candidates don’t bring more of. Are you better on national security than McCain, or more in tune on abortion than Huckabee? And if what the party was crying out for was a guy who was tough enough on immigration (as your supporters keep telling me), why didn’t it go for Tom Tancredo?
Once again, welcome one and all to the Palmetto State. Whether you go on from here may depend in large part on how you answer the above questions.
For my blog, go to http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.
By BRAD WARTHEN