- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2000

Since South Carolina initiated its Republican presidential primary in 1980, arguably no other state has played a more pivotal role in selecting the GOP nominee this, despite New Hampshire's reputation as the presidential testing ground. Since 1980, no candidate has won the party's contested nomination without winning the South Carolina primary. This year may be no exception. Arizona Sen. John McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have waged an intense battle in South Carolina, including an explosive debate Tuesday night during which each scorched the tactics of the other. Several recent polls of likely voters in the South Carolina primary, where Republican voters will be joined by Democrats and independents, indicate Mr. Bush leading Mr. McCain by 2 to 7 percentage points. Mr. Bush has been counting on South Carolina as his "firewall" against the McCain insurgency. Whether that will hold is an open question. Still, Mr. Bush has demonstrated that he can regroup and come out fighting, after the humiliation of New Hampshire.

Victory in tomorrow's South Carolina Republican primary will bring with it enormous momentum going into the Tuesday primaries in Arizona, where Mr. McCain already enjoys home-state advantage, and Michigan, where a recent poll reveals that Mr. McCain has turned a 34-point disadvantage in January into a nine-point lead this week. These primaries are followed a week later by contests in Virginia, North Dakota and Washington. On March 7, voters will select more than 55 percent of Republican delegates in more than a dozen states, including California, New York, Ohio and Maryland.

In all likelihood, the Republican nominee will be known after the March 7 Super Tuesday contests, and if the past is any guide, South Carolina will be vital in that determination. After Mr. McCain demolished the inevitability of Mr. Bush's nomination with his 19-point victory in New Hampshire, the stakes in South Carolina became even higher than they have been in the past.

In South Carolina's first primary in 1980, Ronald Reagan crushed the father of George W. Bush and turned back a challenge from former Texas Gov. John Connally. Three days later Mr. Reagan swept three southern primaries and became the party's de facto nominee. In 1988, Vice President Bush, who had finished a disappointing third in Iowa behind Sen. Bob Dole and the Rev. Pat Robertson, recovered in New Hampshire by defeating Mr. Dole by 9 points. But it was in South Carolina, where he throttled Messrs. Dole and Robertson by nearly 30 points, that Mr. Bush solidified his lead. In 1992, Pat Buchanan surprised President Bush in New Hampshire by capturing nearly 40 percent of the vote. Two weeks later, Mr. Bush did better in Colorado, Georgia and Maryland. But it wasn't until South Carolina voters strongly rejected Mr. Buchanan that Mr. Bush finally clinched the nomination. Three days later the president won all eight primaries.

Also in 1992, in a rare instance when South Carolina Democrats held their own primary, the self-styled New Democrat Bill Clinton, who had lost three of the previous four primaries to Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown, demolished the Democratic field in South Carolina, including the campaigns of Sens. Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin. Three days later, Mr. Clinton won all six southern primaries and was on his way to the White House. In 1996, Mr. Buchanan's campaign recorded a strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and a surprising victory in New Hampshire. It was in South Carolina, however, where voters dealt Mr. Buchanan what proved to be a fatal blow. After defeating Mr. Buchanan there by 16 points, Mr. Dole went on to win eight primaries on the following Super Tuesday, becoming the party's de facto nominee.

The role of South Carolina's GOP primary is undiminished. Ironically, however, this time Democratic voters, as many as 25,000 of whom are expected to participate in the Republican primary, could be the determining factor. Even by South Carolina standards, that would be a momentous development.

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