Patrick Leahy sees visions of JFK and RFK.

Politics on the road.
Jan. 17 2008 4:05 PM

Obama Scores an Old Bull

Patrick Leahy sees visions of JFK and RFK.

Slate's chief political correspondent, John Dickerson, is reporting from South Carolina this week. In addition to his stories, he'll be filing Twitter updates and dispatches about life on the road. You can also follow his travels on the map below. Also, check out John’s past travels in Iowa and all the candidates' whereabouts on " Map the Candidates."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Columbia, S.C., 11:00 a.m.:I've interrupted writing about Mitt Romney to dial in to an Obama conference call. This is the Patrick Leahy endorsement conference call, not the conference call later in the day where Nevada allies will respond to Clinton campaign attacks on Obama's views on Yucca Mountain.

Leahy says he's picking Obama because America "is a good and a great nation" and that Obama can "restore respect for the country. He can reintroduce America to the world and reintroduce America to ourselves." He respects the other candidates but likes Obama's message of hope more.

I ask, given his experience in Washington, what specific problem he thinks Obama can solve by bringing people together. It's one of the candidate's signature points, and I just wonder how it would work out in practice on issues like judicial appointments or education or health-care policy. There's a lot of vagueness to the Obama magic, and I'd love to hear someone articulate one specific about how he might be able to bridge the problem areas that have stopped progress before. Just a little, small example is all I want.

I don't really get an answer to my question. Leahy names some issues Obama has worked on—from foreign affairs to voter rights legislation—and says senators from both parties like to get his views. He then makes a better historical case: "When I was the youngest prosecutor in the country in my twenties and Senator Robert Kennedy was running for president, the establishment was going for a different candidate. I supported Kennedy. I knew what he was doing with people in my age category. He was giving us hope and a sense of being together. Those are intangibles, but it encouraged me to go against many of the people in my state. When I was in college, I supported John Kennedy. … We heard about the great experience of Lyndon Johnson, but I never questioned my commitment to John Kennedy." (permalink)

Jan. 16, 2008

Columbia, S.C., 7:30 p.m.: The stage is set for Mitt Romney's arrival. "Washington Is Broken," reads a blue sign with white lettering heralding the candidate's new message. Also prominently displayed is the to-do list of items Romney promises he'll tackle once in office. Among the 13 items are "Fix Social Security" and "End Illegal Immigration." The last two slots are blank because, says Mitt, he's looking for suggestions from voters on what else he'll do.

Romney is late. The ballroom I'm in at the University of South Carolina is filled with students. Some of the boys have the tell-tale round marks of dip cans in their back pockets. One young man spits his tobacco into an empty water bottle. I could horrify my colleagues by asking for a pinch.

The group doesn't all seem to be Romney supporters. This is quickly confirmed by the two Edwards supporters standing right in front of me. It is further confirmed when an organizer tries to get some chants going. One side of the room is supposed to yell "Mitt," and the other side is supposed to yell "Rocks." They bat it back a few times but can't get enough people to cheer much louder than the U2 playing on the PA system. Ten people are cheering, and even they peter out quickly. The staffers whoop and cheer as if they are topping off a frenzied crescendo. Another chant starts: "Go, Mitt, Go." It disappears as quickly as it arrives. "Let's Go Mitt" also fails. Staffers keep trying but the flame does not ignite. Item 15 on the to-do List: no more cheers.

Romney is now a half-hour late, and mischief-makers try a "Where's Mitt?" call and response. But when the candidate finally does arrive, he's very well-received. He looks tired because he hasn't gotten much sleep since his big Michigan win, and he's also a little sick. His youngest son, Craig, and Craig's wife stand on stage along with their 1-year-old son. "You wanna come see Papa?" says Romney, picking up the boy effortlessly and without artifice. He holds him for a while looking completely comfortable and natural—words that are not readily associated with the candidate. The campaign should make the little moment as regular as hanging the to-do list. (permalink)

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)

Washington, D.C., 9:25 a.m.: The pilot tells us that it's 25 degrees in Greenville, S.C., and they're expecting snow. What is the point of having a "First in the South" primary if the weather is going to be indistinguishable from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan? When I land, I'm headed to a McCain town hall meeting where, if he matches the strategy of telling voters uncomfortable truths that worked so well for him in Michigan, he may very well start calling on the overweight locals by using the term fatty. Later I'll catch up with Mitt Romney, who successfully embraced his Michigan heritage to win yesterday's primary. I'm not sure he has any South Carolina heritage to hug, but he likes to stick with a strategy that works, so we might get to see him in a seersucker suit and white bowler. (permalink)

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