The real-time clock on the 2008 presidential contest started ticking last week in the Deep South, in out-of-the-way Orangeburg, S.C. It took a bit of horse trading, much of it in Atlanta six years ago, to pin down the South Carolina beginning, but it worked.
A few months back, hardly anyone dreamed that the first major debate for the wide-open presidential nomination — this one for Democrats — would occur on national TV from South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, or that the campaigns would be running full-steam eight months before the first caucuses and primaries. Republicans will put on a similar debate in South Carolina on May 15.
Few thought that South Carolina, a small Southern state, could become nearly as important as New Hampshire and Iowa in kicking off the presidential election season.
Until a couple of weeks ago, you could get nearly even money that the Solid Republican South would be all but ignored in the presidential nominating process. Now, South Carolina has shown that old Dixie might still have a significant voice in both parties, having been chosen for the first debates and one of the first primaries.
The late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson would have smiled as he watched eight Democratic presidential candidates — from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson — dutifully stand before microphones at South Carolina State University to show off their presidential talents.
As debates go, the Democratic contest was a ho-hum affair. Few stones were hurled, and no major mistakes were made. Still, it was a start. One wondered if it might even be the beginning of the Democrats winning a new toehold in the South. Probably not. Just wait till you see the show that 10 Republican candidates put on in the Palmetto State.
More than anyone else, Jackson, along with then-Georgia Democratic Chairman David Worley, was responsible for upgrading South Carolina — and giving the South at least some voice — in selecting the 2008 presidential candidates.
Jackson used the proposed early South Carolina primary as a trading chip in negotiations to withdraw his bid to become Democratic National Committee chairman in 2001. When Maynard announced his ambition to become chairman, the national Democratic chieftains were not pleased. The idea of letting Maynard (or any other Southerner, even a black one) rise to the top of the DNC made sweat pop out on the white libs running the party. Above all, they did not want a wide-open fight over the DNC post.
The party ladder had been cleared for Terry McAuliffe (now Sen. Hillary Clinton’s chief fund-raiser) to become DNC chair with as little intra-party friction as possible.
Sensing his bid would cause a fuss, Jackson offered to make a deal to step aside. He wanted African Americans and Southerners to play a larger role in selecting the Democratic ticket.
In making a case for early South Carolina voting, Jackson argued:
— The South Carolina electorate includes a large African-American cohort, which is not present in New Hampshire or Iowa.
— South Carolina would be the only Southern state in the early-contest group. Iowa and New Hampshire are located in relatively stagnant areas of the country. South Carolina is part of a go-go growth region.
(Georgia’s political demographics are comparable to South Carolina’s. But the election experts from both parties deemed Georgia too large for easy media coverage in the first bunch of nominating events.)
The flip side of Jackson’s argument to the Democratic leadership: South Carolina’s Republican primary may steal most of the thunder. An ultraconservative white base dominates the GOP voting and will likely get most of the attention when the real presidential fireworks start.
Remember how South Carolina helped unhorse Sen. John McCain in his 2000 battle against Texas Gov. George W. Bush?
In any event, Terry McAuliffe saw the wisdom of Mayor Jackson’s trade-off and decided to support a South Carolina Democratic primary in the first round of presidential tilts. After winning his way on South Carolina, Jackson was appointed to an important DNC post charged with invigorating grassroots votes.
With little protest, McAuliffe won the chairmanship in 2001. Jackson would never live to see how his deal on South Carolina might affect the 2008 presidential election. Ex-Mayor Jackson died in 2003 after suffering a stroke at Reagan National Airport.
By the time Georgia holds its Feb. 5 presidential primary along with about two dozen other states, the nation will already know the outcomes of important first-round contests in January — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and, finally, South Carolina on Jan. 29.
Indeed, after the Feb. 5 superduper Tuesday, the presidential nominees may be all but decided.
You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.