S.C. primary turnout suggests Republicans retain hold on state

COLUMBIA -- Democrats, excited about the high turnout in their presidential primary earlier this year, are hoping South Carolina can be put into play in November's general election.

But if Tuesday's primary results are any indication, the Palmetto State is as red as ever.

On a hot day when the state's senior U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, and three U.S. House members all faced primary challenges, Republicans swamped Democrats at the polls.

Graham and his opponent, retired dentist Buddy Witherspoon, got a combined 278,625 votes almost twice the number of votes two Democrats on the ballot received.

In the U.S. House races, Republican candidates combined to out-poll their Democratic counterparts by even more gaping margins.

Republicans were quick to see the results as a testament to their hold on the state.

"Republican candidates won primary elections ... by staying true to the principles of our party, limited government, lower taxes and traditional values," S.C. Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson said. "Even with the excitement surrounding the Democratic presidential primary, Republicans in South Carolina have out-recruited the Democrats, out-fundraised the Democrats, and we will out-work the Democrats this fall."

Dawson even took a shot at the presumptive Democratic nominee, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who won the primary here in January.

"Democrats nominated candidates for office in South Carolina up and down the ballot who are long on rhetoric and short on substance, just like their presidential nominee, Barack Obama, the most liberal member of the United States Senate," Dawson said.

Dawson's remarks indicate Republicans believe Obama will not be a boon to other Democrats on the ballot this fall and could actually be a drag on their prospects. That's precisely what state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, predicted when he chose to support U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York in the presidential primary.

But other Democrats and political experts believe McCain will have to compete to win South Carolina this fall.

They cite the current environment, where gas prices are painfully high, the nation's most visible Republican, President Bush, is unpopular and the economy is troubled.

Then there is the excitement Obama's campaign generated here earlier this year when he spoke to large, overflow crowds at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and at Williams-Brice Stadium and spurred the registration of thousands of new voters.

The excitement of January has not waned.

"I'm getting people knocking on our door, looking to go to work for Obama," said Carol Fowler, chairwoman of the S.C. Democratic Party. "If Obama never comes east of the Mississippi River, we will have a strong Obama campaign here."

Republican presidential candidates have had little trouble carrying South Carolina.

Jimmy Carter, from neighboring Georgia, was the last Democrat to win the state, in 1976.

For seven straight presidential elections, Republicans have been able to assume victory in South Carolina and focus their time and resources in other, more competitive states.

But Blease Graham, political science professor at USC, believes McCain won't have that luxury this fall.

He, like Fowler, believes the large gaps in voting between Republicans and Democrats in last week's primary are more of a reflection of what was at stake.

"As much as anything, it shows the distinction between a presidential office and a state office," Graham said. "It's entirely possible that Obama will do better."

Fowler, an Obama supporter, said putting those excited new supporters to work registering new voters will be key. That new voters did not come out to support other candidates in the primary does not mean they won't flood the polls for Obama this fall.

"People don't go out and vote just because it's election day," Fowler said. "They vote because they know of a candidate or they know of a particular issue."

Obama, unlike past Democratic nominees, is expected to have far more money to spend than his Republican rival.

That money can be used on advertising and on campaign staffers, even in states where he merely wants to force McCain to use his own, more limited, resources.

"There is the potential for Obama to mount a 50-state campaign," Graham said. "If there is enough excitement, it could drain the resources (of McCain), and it could make the race here competitive."