James Werrell

When the candidates come a'courting

They love us! They really love us! Well, for a few days anyway.

South Carolina has been at the vortex of the presidential campaign for about the past three weeks. Voters have been courted from the Lowcountry to the Upstate and in between.

So have newspapers, although with somewhat less ardor. The Herald sent invitations a few weeks ago to all the candidates, Democrat and Republican, for an interview with our editorial board, hoping to get up close and personal with them for half an hour or so.

None of the Republican candidates competing in last Saturday's GOP primary could make it, although most offered to send surrogates. That was understandable. With the front-loaded primary schedule, Republicans had the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, the Michigan primary on Jan. 15 and the South Carolina primary four days later.

That barely leaves time for foreplay, much less consummation.

The situation was much the same for Democratic candidates. Sen. Barack Obama was the only one to actively solicit a meeting with The Herald's editorial board. We went back and forth with some tentative dates, but, ultimately, Obama's schedule was too tight.

Fortunately, he had scheduled a meeting with the editorial board of our sister paper, The State, in Columbia, and we were invited to join in. Obama was to be in town for the Martin Luther King Day march and rally on the grounds of the Statehouse, and he could squeeze in a meeting at 8:15 a.m.

Three of us -- Publisher Debbie Abels, Editor Paul Osmundson and I -- left Rock Hill at 6:30 on a frigid Monday morning to make the meeting.

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a column about how people really choose a candidate. Human behaviorists theorize that we pick candidates on gut instinct because they appeal to us for a variety of reasons, and then we search around for more rational reasons to justify our intuitive choice.

Thus, while we may say we support a candidate because of his stance on the NAFTA accords and his approach to reducing carbon emissions, we may really just like his smile.

It is easy to understand why the Obama campaign would want as many people as possible to meet the candidate in person. Obama is loose and natural, comfortable even in a room full of prying journalists.

After months of campaigning, he no doubt had answered all the questions we asked at least a few dozen times. Nonetheless, his responses consisted of more than the rote talking points you get from many candidates. The answers had both intellectual heft and clarity.

The three of us regretted that we had not had the same opportunity to meet the other two top Democratic candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards, especially Clinton. We have heard the numerous testimonials that she is more easygoing in small groups than she often appears when addressing a crowd. She also is supposed to have a keen wit.

The State had extended invitations to both Clinton and Edwards, including several follow-ups with Clinton, but neither showed much interest in a meeting.

A personal meeting with candidates can be revealing, but it isn't absolutely necessary in forming an opinion about them. Like most voters, we often must view the candidates from a distance and rely on what we read and see on news shows and televised debates.

But even without meeting the GOP candidates in person, The Herald's editorial board had little trouble deciding to endorse Sen. John McCain. The lone dissenter on the board backed Fred Thompson, who exited the campaign this week.

The choice to endorse Obama in Saturday's Democratic primary also was nearly unanimous in the end. But several board members said they could easily support Clinton, too.

Ultimately, the one holdout for Clinton said the deciding factor was Clinton's familiarity with the inner workings of the White House and her ability to be an effective leader starting on her first day in office. The rest of us decided to back Obama's potentially transformative candidacy.

So, we now are on record supporting McCain and Obama. As to what effect our endorsements might have had or will have, who knows? I suspect that they have less impact on the presidential vote than any other. Voters already have plenty of information with which to judge presidential candidates.

At any rate, we are likely to have seen the last of all these candidates as of 7:01 p.m. Saturday, when the polls close. South Carolina is virtually certain to go Republican in November, and the closest any candidate is likely to get to the state between now and then is Charlotte.

But it was fun being romanced for a few weeks, even if we knew it wouldn't last. Still, roses and a candlelight dinner or two might have been nice.