It’s the Democrats’ day in the media spotlight here in South Carolina as their presidential contenders square off at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
But just as they’re starting their MSNBC debate at 7 p.m. Thursday, Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain will be making his final stop, Charleston, in his three-city tour across the state.
Can a candidate win a presidential election with a largely grim and apocalyptic message?
McCain was testing that proposition in the state on Thursday, officially launching his bid for the GOP nomination.
“I’d rather lose a campaign than lose a war,” McCain said in response to my question about whether voters simply might not be as alarmed at he is at the consequences of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
“The consequences of failure are disastrous – the consequences of failure are chaos and genocide” if U.S. troops are pulled out before the Iraq government can establish stability, he declared to the crowd of about 300 in Columbia.
After the war in Vietnam, the Communists there “didn’t want to follow us home,” McCain noted. But the jihadists in Iraq, he warned, have declared that they will attack America. “Their objective is to destroy everything that we stand for and hold dear.”
No promises of 'mission accomplished'
“I cannot guarantee you success, my friends,” he told the crowd. “I’m not telling you, ‘mission accomplished,’” a critical allusion to the banner behind President Bush in 2003 as he spoke on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.
Ronald Reagan, McCain’s hero, whom he mentioned in his speech in Columbia, was almost always the happy warrior, but McCain these days, despite his wry humor, has a stump speech that’s largely dire in its forecast of what America is facing.
The humor was on display Thursday when the McCain campaign used the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” as his entrance music at his Columbia event – a reminder of his joke the other day about bombing Iran.
Undecided South Carolina voter Tim Bennett, a real estate broker who has voted for Democrats Jimmy Carter and Al Gore and Republican Richard Nixon in previous elections, showed up to hear what McCain was offering.
“I still don’t know what to think about the war,” he said after McCain spoke. In response to McCain’s warning that the jihadists would “follow us home” if U.S. troops exited Iraq, Bennett said, “I think they’re here already.” He’ll continue to shop for a presidential contender.
Recognizing war's unpopularity
McCain, naturally, knows how unpopular the war is and he can’t do much about that. “I read the polls. I’m not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters Thursday. “I understand the frustration and sorrow that the American people feel about this war. It’s a great tragedy.”
By opposing exit from Iraq, McCain “is doing what he sincerely believes is best for the national security and safety of our country… John’s taking a gutsy position… he’s not taking the easy way out here,” a former Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said back in January.
Five years ago, some Democrats loved McCain, even fantasized about him joining their party and being their 2004 presidential nominee.
What a difference a war makes.
In the spring of 2002, liberal writers Jon Chait in The New Republic and Joshua Green in The Washington Monthly published articles urging McCain to run as a Democrat.
“McCain has become a Democrat in all but name,” declared Chait, citing his opposition to President Bush’s 2001 tax cut, among other things.
Democrats' infatuation in 2002
“Democrats need McCain — his popularity with independents and war hero status make him by far the best choice to beat Bush in 2004,” argued Chait.
Considering how conservative McCain’s voting record was, even in 2002 when Chait and Green idolized him, it always seemed farcical to think of the Democratic Party nominating him for president.
After all, McCain voted to confirm arch-conservative Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1990.
As McCain is happy to remind Republican audiences in South Carolina, he was then and is now a Reagan Republican.
He told his audience in Columbia Thursday how happy he was that the Supreme Court last week upheld the law to “outlaw the terrible and odious practice that’s called partial birth abortion. I am proud that happened; I am proud of the Congress and proud of the president. But I’m also proud of the fact that (Republican senator) Lindsey Graham and I –- with five other Republicans joined with seven Democrats” to design an anti-filibuster deal that allowed Bush nominees John Roberts and Sam Alito to win confirmation.
Promising conservative judges
McCain called them “two of the finest justices ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court.”
As McCain made a point of telling the audience in Columbia, “there may be as many as three vacancies on the United States Supreme Court” in the next presidential term. “It’s going to be a very, very important responsibility of the next president.”
His judges, he implied would be in the mold of Thomas, Alito and Roberts and, he vowed, “would strictly interpret the Constitution.”