TIGERVILLE, S.C.–They’re spread like breadcrumbs on the road from Lyman to North Greenville University.
I counted at least 17 on the 18 mile drive; when I turned off the main road, Rt. 29, they passed by the windows of my white Chevy Impala at a rate of one or two per intersection. And nearly all of them were Baptist.
Which is just to say: this here is Mike Huckabee country.
The former Arkansas governor (and former Baptist minister) may trail John McCain by 2.5 percent in the latest South Carolina polling averages
, but seeing the two leading Palmetto State contenders back-to-back on the same afternoon, it’s immediately clear that it’s McCain, not Huckabee, who’s fighting the uphill battle this week.
McCain’s goal? Protecting his right flank. Unlike in Michigan, New Hampshire or Iowa, the Arizona senator opened both of his appearances this morning by boasting of his “24-year record supporting the rights of the unborn”; asked to explain his new lead-in, McCain told reporters it’s “because we know phone calls are being made that say I’m not [pro-life], so I have to remind people.” (He laughed when someone asked if an opponent–namely the pro-Huckabee group Common Sense Issues
–was making the calls. “No,” he said. “They’re coming from Mount Olympus.”)
Attempting to blunt further speculation about his pro-life cred, McCain trotted out new endorsee Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), a furious foe of abortion and pork-barrel spending, adding that he would “nominate the closest thing to a clone of Justice Roberts I can find.” He railed against internet pornography and spoke frequently of “family values” and the “breakdown of the family.” He turned a question about drug use into an opportunity to talk tough on illegal immigration, dropping phrases like “go back where they came from” more often than “humane” and “compassionate,” his usual watchwords. And McCain even revived an old ad slamming Hillary Clinton for supporting a Woodstock museum. Let the culture wars begin–again.
Don’t get me wrong. McCain’s rightward drift is all well and good–and probably necessary in a state where Confederate Flag loyalists
are swarming each of his events and a group called Vietnam Veterans Against McCain is accusing
him of betraying fellow P.O.W.’s to save himself. (South Carolina has a long, colorful history of smears–as McCain knows from him 2000 loss, when he whispering campaigns alleged that he was gay and/or the father of an out-of-wedlock black child.) But it’s largely a defensive crouch, and it detracts from what even McCain says are his main strengths–national security and veterans issues, which play well among South Carolina’s massive military community.
Huckabee, on the other hand, is entirely at ease. Take today’s appearance at the North Greenville University–an evangelical Baptist school whose motto is “Where Christ Makes the Difference.” At the end of Huck’s remarks, a dean asked the candidate two “hard-hitting” questions. “Not to put you on the spot,” he said, “but are you a Christian? And can you tell us about your salvation experience?”
Shockingly, Huckabee was happy to oblige. “I came to Christ on my tenth birthday,” he said. “August the 24th, 1965.”
“It was at the Vacation Bible School at the little church I attended in Hope, Arkansas. I have to tell you the whole story. I didn’t go to Vacation Bible School to be spiritual. I went because my sister said you get all the Kool-Aid you could drink and all the cookies you could eat. That sounded like a good deal to me, so I went that next day. I was a little disappointed because when I got there, they didn’t think I could drink more than one cup of Kool-Aid or eat more than two cookies. They were wrong about that. But they were right about that day telling me what it means to come to Christ… I remember praying their prayer and feeling overwhelmed with the sense that God loved me. In fact, so much so, when everybody went out to play baseball, some of my friends said, ‘Let’s go play, man.’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to get dirty.’ Because I’d never felt so clean in my life.”
But Huckabee didn’t stop there. After scribbling some autographs and posing for pictures, the former supporter of in-state tuition breaks for young illegal immigrants (who in December became a “Go Home Now” hardliner
) walked across the hall and, at an intimate little press conference, signed a tough-talking “No Amnesty Pledge
“–a pledge that John McCain, it was noted, had already refused to sign. Meanwhile, an anonymous Huckabee adviser was telling
CBN that “the free pass for McCain is over. The next few days in South Carolina will be rough and tumble.”