Catching the South Carolina Fever

RightWatch: The closer politicians get to the Palmetto State, the dicier their rhetoric gets.

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So long, Iowa. It's on to South Carolina!

I know, I know! The New Hampshire primary takes place on Jan. 10, 11 days before the voting in South Carolina. But the contest in the Granite State doesn't count for much because, as a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, Mitt Romney is practically a homeboy and is heavily favored. If Romney can't win there, somebody ought to shove him into a crate, lash it to the top of a car and drive up to Canada, as Romney once did to his family's Irish setter.

So it will be in the Palmetto State, where hard-core Southern conservatives abound, that the next real showdown between Romney and the latest right-wing heartthrob, Rick Santorum, will take place, with supporting roles played by libertarian fruitcake Ron Paul; bloviating former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and, if he decides to stay in the race, Rick Perry, the pistol-totin', Bible-quotin' evangelical Tarzan of Texas.

It's also, I am sorry to say, the state in which some kind of evil racial spell seems to fall over white politicians, making even progressive Democrats sound like throwbacks to Strom Thurmond. In a place where they used to fly the Confederate flag over the Statehouse, the poor pols just can't help themselves.

Take the case of our so-called first black president, Bill Clinton, who came to South Carolina in 2008 to campaign for his wife, Hillary, and promptly lost his mind. He started out by dismissing Barack Obama's well-documented opposition to the war in Iraq as a "fairy tale," then went on to suggest that the only reason South Carolina blacks would vote for Obama was his race.

Furious as those patronizing remarks made many black South Carolinian voters, they would have been whipped into even more of a rage if they had known that Clinton reportedly told Ted Kennedy that "a few years ago [Obama] would have been getting us coffee." That nasty putdown didn't come out until after Obama's victory in the November election.

If the spell can make even Bill Clinton start sounding like Orval Faubus, his segregationist predecessor as governor of Arkansas, it shouldn't surprise us when right-wing Republicans, too, come down with the fever. Some of them have been infected with something like it for years.

Perry, for example, has never provided a full explanation of how he dealt with the racial epithet painted on a rock outside his hunting camp. Gingrich has complained that Obama is "so far outside our comprehension" that he can only be understood through the prism of Kenyan anti-colonialism. Paul has twisted himself into a Romney-like pretzel to explain -- quite unpersuasively -- why the racist comments in the newsletters he published shouldn't be held against him.

And now we have the curious case of Santorum, who is under fire for supposedly saying, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families."

I've looked at the video of his little speech, and I think he used the word "black," even though he was answering a question about entitlements with no obvious racial context. Santorum claims that he doesn't remember what he may or may not have said. He sounds as if he may not have been entirely conscious.

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