LETTER FROM WASHINGTON    DANA WILKIE
Hunting for votes in S.C.

February 26, 2007

They say it is rare for someone to announce a presidential candidacy in the state of South Carolina. Unless of course, the candidate comes from the Palmetto State.

Duncan Hunter doesn't. His home is 2,288 miles to the west, where palm trees make us think of the natural beauty of the desert, not swamps.

They also say it makes more sense, if you're a White House hopeful, to focus your early money and energy on the two states that hold the nation's first presidential contests for both political parties – Iowa and New Hampshire. The idea is to visit so many town meetings you lose track, to practically own stock in the local coffee joints, and to talk the ear off every last voter and political operative you can hunt down.

You do all of this especially if you're a third-tier candidate, like our Republican congressman from Alpine, who desperately needs to make an early splash if he hopes to win the sort of national attention, campaign money and political momentum that might carry him through states with later primaries.

Since announcing around Halloween that he was considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination, Hunter has been to South Carolina at least four times, certainly more often than he has visited New Hampshire or Iowa. Late last month, he made his campaign official while in Spartanburg, S.C. And it was in South Carolina, North Carolina and South Dakota where he aired his first TV ads – commercials highlighting his belief that China is stealing American jobs and threatening U.S. security by “cheating” at trade.

 

LOOKING PAST IOWA, N.H.

Such ads might not have worked so well in Iowa, whose voters tend to be conservative on most social issues – the state's GOP caucuses are typically dominated by religious conservatives – but less conservative on military and foreign-policy matters.

Up in New Hampshire, meanwhile, far-right candidates don't play so well now that independents, who can vote in the primary elections, exude such influence. While George W. Bush may have prevailed among Republicans in the 2000 contest there, it was Arizona Sen. John McCain who courted independents and carried off a 19-point victory.

South Carolina, meanwhile, is staunchly Republican. Even the Democrats tend to be conservative. It's a state whose textile industry has been battered by overseas competition, a welcoming environment for Hunter's protectionist trade views.

Moreover, South Carolina holds its contest Jan. 29, just seven days after New Hampshire's. Eight years ago, GOP candidates had 18 days between those two elections. How candidates do in this first test in the South could influence the nation's first impression of them, and thus their popularity in contests to follow.

While front-running McCain has locked up the endorsements of half the South Carolina Legislature, he could have trouble courting the Christian conservatives who may be critical to winning the party's nomination – and who aren't convinced that the Arizona lawmaker shares their values on banning gay marriage and other social topics.

 

HARD-LINERS FOR HUNTER

They'll have no such qualms about Hunter. Rep. Trent Franks – the anti-abortion, anti-gay-marriage congressman who recently split with Arizona's GOP congressional delegation to back Hunter – has called the former House Armed Services Committee chairman “an unequivocal social and fiscal conservative.”

Hunter was most recently in South Carolina last week to name his state campaign advisers, whose views buttressed that point.

One adviser, Horry County Auditor Lois Eargle, highlighted her tough stand on illegal immigrants. The former county GOP chairwoman stood beside Hunter and told reporters that when an illegal immigrant came to her office last week asking for free legal help for an abused child, Eargle advised that the woman “get back to Mexico.” Whatever one thinks about this brand of humanitarianism, there's no question that it dovetails nicely with Hunter's hard-line stand on illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, Hunter's campaign co-chairman will be Henry Jordan, an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor who said last year that science doesn't support Darwin's theory that man evolved from apes. “I mean, you've got to be stupid to believe in evolution, I mean really,” he told The Associated Press at the time.

The day after those announcements, Hunter spent Friday visiting with FreedomWorks, a group that advocates cutting taxes and shrinking government whose chairman is that well-known Texas conservative, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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