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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Of politics and polarization: South Carolina edition

The road to Tampa Bay was never going to be dull, not given the cast of characters that have populated this reality show called the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary.

The flavor-of-the-month frontrunners. The seemingly endless debates -- and it's only January, making the August nominating convention seem like a farther stretch than the sands of the Sahara. Then came the deluge of ads descending upon the diminutive early primary states, with all the pull of La Brea tar.

Now that the field has winnowed, Team Romney has been furiously spinning the cloak of inevitability -- and banking on vast amounts of Citizens United-enabled ads in favor of the former Massachusetts governor.  A 1-2-3 order of the early primaries would demonstrate his dominance and claim as sole heir to the GOP's Excalibur, able to slay the Evil One oppressing freedom from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Lurching toward that sword in the stone has been labyrinthine travel for Romney, though. The latest obstacle in this odyssey to unseat the president is the pudgy pugilist Newt Gingrich, self-appointed guardian of the nominating gate.

True, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has had some competition for his current title of Primeval Dark Lord, primarily from a roster of Ricks -- as in Santorum, the former U.S. senator, and Perry, governor of Texas. Both have unabashedly flailed at Obama via proxy: debasing African Americans to the delight of a narrow band of the party.

PA Rick opined among a snowy crowd in Iowa that he'd prefer that black people improve their lives by earning their own money, as opposed to giving them someone else's money. After all, black people don't work, pay taxes toward promoting the nation's general welfare, help provide for the common defense or any of that other lofty idealism.

Texas Rick enjoys time unwinding with a hunt at his Niggerhead Ranch. Sure it's a shameful name, which is why in some alternate universe, a benevolent Perry had that name painted over and banned, though everyone refers to the sprawling expanse by its delightful title. Besides that, the S.C. primary's single-digit candidate seems prone to secessionist overtones, painting pictures of states "under siege," evoking a resurrected Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag of which he is so fond.

Gingrich, in full attack-dog mode
But then there is Gingrich, the Machiavellian maestro of polished polarization, positioning, and politics.

Undone in the previous contests by shock-and-awe ads funded by super PACs for whose existence he once advocated, he vowed to make South Carolina his beachhead. And the fastest way to mount that GOP bedrock seems to be inserting a knowing wink-nod while lighting the near-translucent racial powder keg.

After all, Gingrich is not only a native Georgian, he's also a student of history, with a focused eye on scorched earth approaches of past demagogues.

His thesis was on full display Monday night, aptly enough the federal holiday commemorating the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was the perfect backdrop to pay homage to the arrogant authority embodied by South Carolina's late native son, the nefarious U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Conservative black political analyst became
unwitting political pinata for the get-'em crowd
Referring to Obama as the "food stamp president" just started the party. When veteran newsman Juan Williams dared to ask Gingrich about his stated assertions on black work ethic and sense of responsibility, his dismissal pandered so patently you could almost hear Thurmond applaud from the grave.

Gingrich, the would-be statesman, has embraced the complete caricature of the populist Southern Republican, with flair -- convenient since his conservative credentials remain under fire.  And he was richly rewarded for the reincarnation.

The Myrtle Beach Convention Center erupted when he refused to even restate -- or, as it is known in politi-speak, "clarify" -- his comments. The PeopleMeters rocked off the charts, and those fuzzy feelings are still sending supporters swooning.

"I would like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place the other night," one woman cooed at a Gingrich gathering on Wednesday. "His supposed question was totally ludicrous."

In his place.

Because that black man -- a veteran newsman, celebrated political analyst, and frequenter of the center-right position -- had stepped out of line. Much like the one in the White House they're working ever so hard to defeat. Surely the next descriptor would be "uppity."

But not from Gingrich. He just stokes the flames. Then, like Nero, watches Rome burn.

That incendiary passion, a momentum shifter, is partly what has Team Romney nervous as they canvass the Palmetto State, with a little more than 72 hours until the primary.  Polls have had Romney in a 10-14 point lead, but the most recent Public Policy Poll showed the so-called frontrunner at 29 percent, with Gingrich snapping at his heels at 24 percent.

Iowa was a squeaker, now termed a split decision, with PA Rick. New Hampshire proved a better outing. That makes South Carolina the crucial third leg of the creaky inevitability trifecta, and that could be slipping away. Gov. Nikki Haley may not prove to be Romney's Lady of the Lake, either. Her early endorsement looks less golden since it's now known that her tea party sheen has dulled and conservative troops in the state are getting restless, if not disillusioned. 

Meanwhile, Gingrich dog whistles and dances his jig, ready to push his poison like Jim Jones, sloshing it among the all-too willing. With a finish of 25 percent or better, he'll fly to Florida, a hellhound on Romney's trail as the Barry Goldwater of the 21st century.