Bush whacked

South Carolina Democrats give John McCain a boost by dumping their primary.

Published February 4, 2000 5:56PM (EST)

John McCain got an unlikely ally in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination last week: The South Carolina Democratic Party.

On Jan. 27, the party decided to cancel its presidential primary because it would be "anticlimactic," according to party spokeswoman Danielle Clermont. But since South Carolina voters don't register as members of political parties, the lack of a Democratic primary increases the likelihood that Democrats and independents will vote for McCain, just as they did in New Hampshire.

"I guess in a way it would probably be more beneficial to McCain than anybody else," Clermont conceded. "There are some Democrats who will vote for McCain -- one of the reasons is to screw [George W.] Bush over."

Though Clermont says (with a detectable amount of glee in her voice) that the Democrats' decision may end up hurting the GOP front-runner, she insists there was not conspiratorial intent behind canceling the primary. "No, it wasn't done for anybody else's reasons but our own," she said.

"We're not trying to take votes away from [Bush]," she said. "South Carolina is one of the only states where the state parties have to pick up the entire tab for the primaries. The estimated cost of the primary is close to $1 million, and since 42 percent of the delegates would have been selected by the time our primary rolled around, we decided our money would be better spent in other ways."

But as soon as the Democrats made their decision, McCain's numbers went through the roof. According to a Time-CNN poll in November, McCain trailed Bush 62 percent to 15 percent in the Palmetto State. By early January, those numbers had narrowed to 52-32.

But the latest poll by the American Research Group, which surveyed 400 likely primary voters (200 Democrats and 200 Republicans) from Jan. 29 to Jan 31 -- before McCain's momentum-generating win in New Hampshire on Tuesday -- showed the race in a statistical dead heat.

A subsequent Zogby International Poll conducted on Wednesday placed McCain up by five points. Zogby surveyed 517 likely GOP primary voters -- 318 Republicans, 131 independents and 68 Democrats, reflecting Zogby's belief that roughly two non-Republicans will cast a vote in the Feb. 19 Republican primary for every three Republican voters.

If the rapid change in the South Carolina political landscape isn't bewildering enough, there is still a chance that the GOP contest will be canceled all together. On Feb. 14, a federal court will hear a case brought by the U.S. Justice Department against the South Carolina Republican Party. The case argues that Republicans were not planning to open some polling places in heavily minority areas without first receiving clearance from the Justice Department, a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Democrats switched their primary to a caucus because they, too, were not planning on opening all polling places.

Though the legal proceedings are continuing, a source close to the case said the odds of the feds canceling the South Carolina GOP primary "in all honesty aren't very good. But all this excitement sure has made South Carolina a fun place to be."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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