New voters in S.C. could help Obama

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler isn't ready to bet money on Barack Obama winning the Palmetto State in the Nov. 4 presidential election.

But Fowler, chairman of Columbia-based Fowler Communications, said a confluence of factors makes it possible that this stronghold of Deep South conservatism could fall from the ranks of the GOP for the first time since Jimmy Carter in 1976 and for only the second since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

His arguments include:

• More Democrats turned out for their presidential primary in January than Republicans did for theirs, 529,000 to 443,000, according to South Carolina Election Commission figures. That has never happened before, according to commission spokesman Chris Whitmire.

• The Obama campaign, energized by an overwhelming victory in the state primary, has been very active in registering new voters here. Even with a purge of 300,000 inactive voters from the rolls last fall, the total number of voters registered in the state grew by 2.2%, including a 2.6% increase in non-white voters, and more than 20,000 new young voters, according to the Election Commission.

• Obama campaigned heavily in South Carolina, which held the first primary in the South. He drew big crowds, particularly of young people. About 29,000 people came to see him with Oprah Winfrey in Columbia.

Although John McCain won the state's Republican primary, Fowler said the Arizona senator was criticized by many GOP voters as too liberal on such issues as immigration.

That perception has been altered by McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to run as vice president, said former governor Jim Edwards, who was elected in 1974 and was the first Republican governor of South Carolina since Reconstruction.

Edwards supported Mitt Romney during the primary, and he said he was disappointed when McCain didn't pick the former Massachusetts governor as his running mate.

Still, Edwards said he thinks McCain "knocked a home run" when he chose Palin as his running mate.

"I had no idea McCain would ever have the courage to pick someone like that, a female, particularly from Alaska," Edwards said. "I haven't seen this kind of excitement in the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan."

State GOP chairman Katon Dawson said his party isn't taking the state for granted, but he said he believes South Carolina voters will never go for "the most liberal Democrat ticket we've faced in a long time."

Dawson said Republicans in the state are "going to work as if we were one vote behind. We're going to talk about the issues that matter to South Carolina, the issues that make the two parties different and the issues that make the campaigns different."

According to the latest Rasmussen Reports poll released Sept. 20, McCain was leading Obama 51% to 45%. Among Obama supporters, 84% said they are supporting him "with enthusiasm," while 63% of McCain supporters said they are enthusiastic about him.

George W. Bush won the state both in 2000 and 2004 with 57% and 58% of the vote, respectively.

People like Jil Littlejohn, 29, an accountant and co-chair of the Young Democrats of Greenville County, are working across the state to try to give Obama an edge.

"South Carolina has definitely had an influx of younger people and transplants, and it's going to be important that we reach those voters and get them to come out to the polls," she said.

For some McCain supporters in Greenville, S.C., it's not so much a matter of being for him as it is being against Obama — and sticking to the party line.

Byron Beckham, 36, an unemployed heavy mechanical worker, said he doesn't blame the economic problems on the GOP and will remain a straight-ticket Republican.

"The main problem I have with Democratic government is they tax us to death and put the money in the pockets of people that don't need it," he said.

Obama supporters see current economic conditions as ample reason to support the Obama-Joe Biden ticket.

"Truly it's the worst times I have ever seen since my existence on this planet," said Greg Johnson, owner of O.J's Diner. He blames Bush for the high gas prices. "Our prices are going through the roof because of that."

Oliver Durham, 69, a retired loading dock worker who now runs an exterminating business, believes Bush's economic philosophy has been proved wrong.

"The economy can never be built from the top down," he said. "Bush said he'll give the top 2% of people a tax break so they can create some jobs. Where are the jobs? All our jobs have gone overseas."

An Obama victory is still a long shot at best, according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

"If Obama even comes close in South Carolina, we'll have an early election night and a substantial Democratic victory for the presidency," he said.

Barnett reports for The Greenville (S.C.) News.