October 8, 2006
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is emerging as the favorite of hard-core conservative Republicans in South Carolina who want to derail John McCain’s straight talk express.
Their first pick, U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia, lost standing when he made highly publicized racial slurs during a heated re-election campaign.
That left conservatives–mostly evangelical Christians–with one real challenger to McCain.
“Social conservatives are absolutely going to line up behind Romney,” said Dee Benedict of Greenville, a prominent activist. “What I’ve found in talking with pastors and activists is that a number of them are already committed to Romney–to my surprise.”
Their goal is to head off McCain at the pass — meaning South Carolina — and keep him from winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney’s candidacy offers them their best opportunity, they think.
The residue of 2000 still lingers. Many religious conservatives have not forgotten how nasty that contest was between McCain and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Christian conservative leaders, like Robert Taylor of Bob Jones University in Greenville, don’t trust McCain.
“McCain is not a true conservative in the traditional sense,” Taylor said. “He is too much of a pragmatist.”
Taylor is promoting Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher, as an alternative to McCain. But his pleas are falling on deaf ears. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia is not an option. He has too much baggage.
Richard Quinn, McCain’s S.C. consultant, rejects the notion that large numbers of conservatives are shopping for an alternative.
“McCain now has more conservatives on board than any other potential candidate,” he said.
McCain’s people say they aren’t worried. The “anybody-but-McCain” crowd, they say, is a loose federation of malcontents who never are going to support the senator.
The stop-McCain movement picked up an important ally last month when U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a Greenville Republican, wrote party activists urging them to hold off endorsing anyone for now.
The letter angered state Attorney General Henry McMaster so much so he fired off a response.
“I don’t understand why anyone would want to dampen that early enthusiasm,” said McMaster, a McCain supporter. “It is faulty advice.”
Barring a major event, South Carolina appears headed toward a showdown between McCain supporters and a band of Christian right activists who are counting on Romney.
Religious conservatives remember McCain attacking their leaders in the 2000 campaign. He branded them intolerant and “evil,” and accused them of conducting a smear campaign against him.
“Romney has moved up the fastest,” said Spartanburg County Republican chairman Rick Beltram.
Still, early polls show McCain to be the favorite among all S.C. Republican voters.
Romney has hired two party activists who know the grass roots. They constantly are raising money and setting up meetings with key folks across the state. They are quietly putting together a state advisory team, which Romney hopes to announce soon.
While other candidates focus on public appearances, Romney builds a grass-roots organization from the bottom up. McCain, meanwhile, has a major endorsement of the week, giving the impression that Big Mo is on McCain’s side.
It doesn’t always work.
In the 1980 presidential primary here, then-Texas Gov. John Connolly had the backing of the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and the state party establishment.
Connolly lost big to California Gov. Ronald Reagan.