What I almost said in Key West

Last night it occurred to me that I wrote out a lengthy opening statement for the panel discussion down in Key West over the weekend, and never used it. And I hate writing stuff without it going to some purpose…

As I told y’all previously, I had written out this whole argument about why Romney was inevitable in SC, and then got the jitters after seeing Gingrich gaining in the polls, and scrapped the whole thing. I decided to wing it instead, which in the end worked much better. I don’t speak well from notes.

So while I have no idea at this point what I actually said, I can at least share with you what I was gonna say. I still believe most of it, including the fact that Romney’s gonna win.

Here it is:

Senate Presidents’ Forum
January 14, 2012
Brad Warthen opening remarks

My home state, South Carolina, is an awkward size by comparison with its aspirations.

In 1860, hearing that his native state and mine had just seceded from the union, James L. Petigru famously said, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” Often in its history, including quite recently, the state has seemed to be trying to be one or the other, and sometimes both at the same time.

We are… interesting.

Jon Stewart adores us, and Stephen Colbert is very proud to be a native of the Palmetto State. But it’s not just that we’re funny. For my part, I started blogging six years ago because there just wasn’t room on a daily editorial page to say everything that needed to be said about our politics. Now that I’m not with the paper, I still blog, and the only challenge is that I never have enough time to write about it all.

Now, all of that said and fully acknowledged, I want to say this: We’re not really as crazy as y’all think we are.

The last few days, I keep reading and hearing about how NOW it’s gonna get down and dirty and wild and woolly and all sorts of overdone hyperboles. Because supposedly, South Carolina is where civility and decorum and all rationality end. In the last few days, I’ve seen the word “dirty” used to describe South Carolina politics in website headlines from CNN, NPR, CBS, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Time magazine. Huffington Post, to be different, used the phrase “bloody mess.”

And indeed, it will be interesting. This is last-ditch time. The end of the line for the also-rans from Iowa and New Hampshire, if they can’t put a serious dent in the Romney juggernaut. If Romney wins in South Carolina as big as he did in New Hampshire, I’m going to feel sorry for the folks down here in Florida, spending all that money on a foregone conclusion.

And yes, it’s possible that something unseemly will happen. You know the stories. In 2000, someone accused John McCain of fathering an illegitimate child of mixed race (something Strom Thurmond actually did, by the way, but that was a long time ago). Then there were those Christmas cards that went out in 2007 with pictures of the Romney family and controversial quotations from the Book of Mormon. These things have a way of happening in South Carolina, even though Lee Atwater is long gone.

But… when all is said and done, when the last skull has been cracked and the barroom brawl is over, you know what you’re going to have? A coronation of the official, duly-appointed Establishment candidate.

That’s what we do in South Carolina. Very early in the process, and often with little regard to what has happened in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina annoints a candidate, and then the Republican Party goes ahead and nominates that guy. It’s been happening ever since 1980. Ronald Reagan wasn’t the establishment candidate when the process started in Iowa – George H.W. Bush won, in fact. But it was his turn, after 1976. And ever since then, there has been this moment, every four years, when South Carolina Republicans all settle down and pick the most palatable, most presentable candidate. The one that other Republicans across the country will eventually embrace as inevitable.

The respectable candidate. The one whose turn it is.

This has happened every presidential election for that last 32 years. You can set your clock by it. Or your calendar, at least.

Now, that said, I was afraid that the pattern was going to be broken this year.

After the loss in 2008 – when many, such as our own Jim DeMint, were convinced that the GOP lost because it wasn’t conservative enough – South Carolina Republicans have spent some time wandering in the wilderness.

And the definition of conservative was rapidly changing. This had happened before. In 1992, Bob Inglis seemingly came out of nowhere to unseat incumbent congresswoman Liz Patterson, which marked the rise to power of religious conservatives in the state party. That marked a shift from the state GOP being dominated by economic-development types such as Carroll Campbell to the values faction.

Less than a generation later, in 2010, Bob Inglis would be CRUSHED by a Tea Party candidate, for the sin of not being conservative enough. Which, if you know Bob Inglis, is rather startling.

That wasn’t the most startling thing that happened that year. The most startling thing was that a little-known, untested legislative back-bencher won the Republican nomination for governor over several far more established candidates.

The nation is amazed that an Indian-American woman is South Carolina’s governor. South Carolina is more amazed that Nikki Haley came out of nowhere to run right over Henry McMaster and Gresham Barrett.

That Republicans would pick her so recently made it seem very difficult to predict what would happen next in Republican politics in South Carolina.

That uncertainty continued, with regard to the presidential primary, until a month ago. As late as Dec. 14, one month ago today, I wrote on my blog that I had no idea what was going to happen. There were a number of things that were odd about this year, aside from not being able to gauge what sort of sway the Tea Party still held:

—     As measured by traffic on my blog, interest in the primary had peaked in August, when I had more than a quarter of a million page views. That was the month when Rick Perry announced in Charleston, and initially there was a lot of excitement about him. But over the next couple of months, as he faded, my traffic dropped off. That was in contrast to what happened four years earlier, when blog traffic increased steadily leading up to the primary itself.

—    During the last few months, likely primary voters staggered in confusion from Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich, according to polls. There was such a lack of a discernible pattern that I began to think that maybe South Carolina was so unsettled that maybe it wasn’t going to go with the establishment candidate this time, the candidate whose turn it was. And if that happened, we probably weren’t going to pick the eventual nominee. And that meant that four years from now, the nation wasn’t going to be nearly as interested in South Carolina as it customarily is.

But then, over the holidays, things started to shift. It wasn’t a change in the polls that first made up my mind about what was going to happen. Nor was it the results in Iowa or New Hampshire.

I had been getting a feeling, nothing more, that the stars were lining up for Romney. But I really figured out what was going to happen on Dec. 31, when I read that Warren Tompkins had decided to support Romney – for free. Warren is sort of the gold standard of political consultants in South Carolina. All the other politicos who usually pick the winner had committed to other candidates early on – a surprising number of them [McMaster, Courson, Campbell, Alan Wilson] for Huntsman, and some [Harrell, Wilkins] for Perry.

But Warren waited until he was sure. Until he was seeing what I was seeing, and a lot of stuff that would be invisible to me. That was it. What happened over the next couple of weeks in polls, and in Iowa and New Hampshire, just confirmed what I already knew, which is that Warren had called it.

Nothing this side of the grave is certain. And in fact, Newt Gingrich has been rising fairly quickly in polls released the last couple of days. American Research Group has him within striking distance, and Rasmussen not far behind that. So maybe all that superPAC money is paying off.

But I think Romney pretty much has it sewn up. Maybe Gingrich will win the coveted second spot. Or maybe someone else will.

But you know what? I don’t think it matters much who’s in second. Because after South Carolina, Romney will have it sewn up.

5 thoughts on “What I almost said in Key West

  1. bud

    It’s been happening ever since 1980. Ronald Reagan wasn’t the establishment candidate when the process started in Iowa – George H.W. Bush won, in fact. But it was his turn, after 1976.

    Hey, that’s my thought. Where’s the attribution. I should have had it copyrighted.

  2. Mark Stewart

    Probably was good you went with extemporaneous speaking. Romney may win, but it’ll be like Nikki Haley’s squeaker.

    Usually people appear resigned to the inevitability of a candidate; this year it seems more like a collective queasiness over the leading candidate. That’s a very different kind of vibe; one that may not create that voting result cascade.

    I somehow see Newt having a better shot in November than Romney would likely have. Makes one wonder about the purpose of nominating through the primary process a certain loser in the general election?

  3. Steven Davis

    Oh, well if it’s lobbyists money then nevermind. Next year you should suggest they rename it the “Bribery Forum”.

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