Columbia, S.C., 5:00 p.m.: I am standing at the check-in desk at the hotel when suddenly it hits me. This is the very hotel where in 1996 Alan Keyes staged one of the shortest hunger strikes in the history of mankind. He was protesting his exclusion from a debate that was held in the hotel and created quite a fuss in the lobby. He encouraged his supporters to join in, too, but then the debate took place and the hunger strike ended as soon as it had started, giving Keyes no chance at being tempted even by the mixed nuts on the nearby bar. (permalink)
Spartanburg, S.C., 12:40 p.m.: As I step out of my rental car, I'm greeted by four protesters carrying a couple of Confederate flags. One has a "Boot John McCain" poster with the flag on it. In 1962, the all-white South Carolina legislature voted to fly the Confederate flag over the statehouse in Columbia. In 2000, it was taken down, and now a Confederate flag flies in front of the Capitol next to a monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers. The controversy still angers people. I remember at the state GOP convention in 2000, as then-Gov. David Beasley spoke, a man walked in front of him with an enormous flag and waved it, almost completely obscuring the governor. He was escorted from the room.
"Come on and join us," the group yells over to me. "Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson would be proud of you." Despite my Virginia heritage, I consider telling them I'm a Joshua Chamberlain man myself but realize that would be stupid.
They're not the only protesters. Outside of the Cleveland Park Event Center, where the town hall is taking place, anti-immigration protesters carry two large copies of a National Review cover with a picture of McCain whispering to Ted Kennedy. The cover line reads: "Let's Say It's Not Amnesty."
South Carolina is a nutty place. The phones are ringing with push polls. My windshield has already gotten two immigration fliers attacking McCain, and I've only been here half a day. When the state Attorney General Henry McMaster takes the stage to begin the line of introductions, he nods to the brewing air of mischief: "People start going crazy. It's like Halloween with a full moon. When you get those calls, don't believe it. They're saying John McCain is not pro-life—he's always been pro-life."
Lindsey Graham takes the stage, and there are a few boos mixed in with the applause. "Oh, boo yourself," he says back to the crowd. The one or two noisemakers are likely pro-flag people. Graham was on the other side of the issue.
The room is packed with about 300 people, many of them veterans. You can tell because many wear navy-blue caps laden with pins. Nearly 50 men raise their hands when those who have served are asked to do so. McCain starts by touting his pro-life record and mentions the phone calls again. The rest of the speech covers his aversion to pork-barrel spending and the threat from global terrorism. He takes several questions and makes little news. He gets a couple of questions about immigration, one from a building contractor who says he's having trouble competing with immigrant labor. "Illegal immigrants are slitting our throats," says the man. "What are we going to do about all of them that are here?" McCain gives a tough enforcement answer that rambles a bit, but he gets a round of applause. The crowd likes him, though it's not a raucous event.
At the end, there is the threat of drama. John Hill, 51, of Charleston, has been agitating at the back of the room since the event started. He's put the McCain sticker that staffers give every attendee on his backside, which gives you some idea of his feelings about the senator. "Question! Question!" he yells several times. McCain doesn't call on him, turning instead to a man who it turns out served with McCain on the USS Forrestal, the site of one of McCain's first near-death experiences. "Question! Question!" Hill shouts again. Finally, McCain calls on him. "You came out in favor of the removal of the battle flag," says Hill. "What's your answer for that?"
"I cannot be more proud of the overwhelming number of people who supported removing that flag from the dome," says McCain to an increasingly loud round of applause. The audience gets louder even though McCain is still speaking. Mr. Hill huffs in disgust as McCain calls the event to a close to the standing ovation. (permalink)
Greenville, S.C., 11:40 a.m.: The McCain staffers look like they haven't slept since the 2000 race. They're trying to game out just how much Romney is going to compete in South Carolina or whether he'll peel off to Nevada to participate in its caucus and try to downplay the South Carolina result. There's lots of talk of heavy phone banking and "push polls" being made in support of Huckabee. A Romney staffer whose parents live here went home for the night, and the family dinner was interrupted by a push poll. Everyone has a phone call story. Huckabee's allies did a lot of that in Michigan, and it didn't seem to help. What happened to the nice, I'm-not-going-negative guy who told the funny jokes? (permalink)