Last weekend’s voting in Nevada and South Carolina produced no clear frontrunner on the Republican side, and has left the Democratic race in a stalemate. In Nevada, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, defeating Obama 51%-45%, with John Edwards garnering a mere 4% of the vote. However, because of the way the delegates are allocated, Obama actually received more delegates. The election here began what promises to be a trend toward the constituent groups of the party lining up behind their favorite candidate. In this case Obama garnered 80% of the black vote, with Hillary winning women and the lion’s share of the party regulars. In South Carolina, polls now show Obama has reversed the situation of last October getting 60% of black support to Hillary’s 40. Each candidate is beginning to look less and less as a transcendent figure as the constituent elements of the party line up to do battle.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, coming off his victory in Michigan won more than 50% of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Libertarian Ron Paul finished second, narrowly edging out John McCain for second place, followed by Thompson and Huckabee. With over half his support coming from his Mormon base, Romney cruised to an easy victory. Not so in South Carolina, where John McCain prevailed with 33% of the vote to Mike Huckabee’s 30%.
The lesson in last Saturday’s ballots was that no candidate has yet to forge a coalition of the willing. Romney, while leading in the delegate count, has had to rely heavily on his roots, his family name and his religion to get this far; McCain is only now beginning to emerge as something other than a flash in the pan, and Huckabee has reached the limits of his fundamentalist base.
The losers in last Saturday’s polling were John Edwards who barely made a dent in Nevada and Mike Huckabee who in the process of whoring for votes has revealed himself the worst kind of charlatan since Elmer Gantry. Campaigning in the snake-pit that is Republican South Carolina politics, Huckabee postured as a “progressive, compassionate conservative” called for the enactment of the so called “Fair Tax”, a flat sales tax proposal that savages the working classes. Spouting Bible passages about the need to take care of the least of us, here was ‘Ol Huckleberry Mike” posturing as a disciple of a new fundamentalism while lending support to the most regressive tax proposals.
It got uglier. There is something unseemly about a man of the cloth snorkeling in the cesspool of what are racial politics in America. Huck’s campaign quickly became a race to the bottom, the kind of race-baiting that would have made Strom Thurmond proud. Once again raising the state flag issue, an issue the good people of the Palmetto State had thought they had put away years ago--- Huck sought to re-open that wound for short-term political gain saying that in Arkansas if people “came down here and told us what to do with our flag, we’d tell them what to do with the pole”. This is what happens, I guess, when you have Chuck Norris advising you on matters political. Then there were the dark murmurings about the need to change the Federal Constitution so that it would more readily comply with “god’s laws”; whatever the hell that means.
So we have Huckabee in South Carolina laying out the Christian Conservative agenda of flat tax and constitutional amendment, and Willard Romney speaking of the need not to divide church and state with each now reduced to messages that increasingly speak only to their limited constituencies. In Nevada it gained Romney a victory but left him well down in the pack in South Carolina. In South Carolina it could yield Huck only second place. This leaves John McCain as the only candidate now leading the Republican pack who has a chance at building a national coalition.
It’s too bad. Both Huck and Mitt could have taken a page from John Kennedy. When confronted with heated religious issues, Kennedy campaigned and won in heavily protestant West Virginia and demonstrated his ability to represent all Americans. He also went down to Houston Texas and addressed a group of fundamentalist and protestant ministers. There he spoke of the need to separate church and state, and that as a practicing catholic he would take no instructions from his church. He would not be a catholic president but a president who happened to be catholic. Given the secular constitution of our republic and the plethora of religious practices in this country it is important for our leaders to be so understood.
What Kennedy did in Houston and what Obama did by not involving himself with the crisis in Jena Mississippi is put some distance between themselves and their core constituencies. This is necessary if one is to become a truly national candidate. What Willard and Huck should have done is assume the support of the Mormons and the Baptists and go about the business of addressing the larger nation. Instead each has now been tagged, and rightly so, as the Mormon candidate or the Christian Conservative candidate. Each may, though it is increasingly unlikely, gain the nomination but it is hard to see how each would prevail in a general election unless either they are confronted with a Democrat with similar limitations or they soon begin to speak to a national audience.
This week did not look promising. A few short weeks ago Hillary and Obama and the hapless Huck had broader support crossing gender, class and racial lines. The votes in Nevada and South Carolina have shown a re-alignment rendering them less transcendental. The same is true on the Republican side with Romney and Hucklabee winning support of greater shares of smaller parts of the whole.
Politics can be such a demeaning business.