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The sharp-edged politics that make South Carolina unique

February 19, 2016 at 7:51 PM EDT
It’s a common refrain for GOP candidates in this year’s race: “South Carolina picks presidents.” The Palmetto State has chosen the eventual Republican nominee in nearly every election since 1980, and this year’s contenders are embracing the sharp-edged politics that make the state unique. Political director Lisa Desjardins reports on the final push for support in the battle for South Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Although Trump seems to defy conventions, South Carolina history tells us one thing for sure. The Palmetto State has a unique brand of sharp-edged politics.

Political director Lisa Desjardins reports.

LISA DESJARDINS: The GOP race is down to six candidates, and they all know the saying South Carolina picks presidents.

FORMER GOV. JEB BUSH (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: You all have the chance to reset the race. That’s what South Carolinians have done in the past.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), Republican Presidential Candidate: And now South Carolina is going to play the role that it has always played in presidential race, the historic role of choosing presidents.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), South Carolina: We make presidents. Let’s make Marco Rubio the next president of the United States! God bless!


LISA DESJARDINS: The Palmetto State has voted for the eventual Republican nominee nearly every year since 1980 from Ronald Reagan to John McCain. The lone exception? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), Former Speaker of the House: We want to run not a Republican campaign. We want to run an American campaign.


LISA DESJARDINS: A surprise win, but not enough to carry him to the nomination.

Bruce Haynes is a Republican strategist who grew up in Florence.

BRUCE HAYNES, Republican Strategist: South Carolina, in the past, has gone for more establishment types, strong leaders typically with a lot of experience in politics. But this time, we may be turning a different page.

LISA DESJARDINS: He is referring, of course, to Donald Trump, who’s doubled down in South Carolina, with far more events per day than in Iowa or New Hampshire. He has the same strong words.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Republican Presidential Candidate: Who’s the best on the border? It’s Trump. Who’s the best on the economy is Trump.

LISA DESJARDINS: Voters here live with modern growth that is leaving some behind.

BRUCE HAYNES: There’s a piece of the state that’s still catching up. The cut-and-sew textile plants have shut down and closed, and those jobs have gone overseas, which plays right into the message that Donald Trump is delivering about trade, about jobs and about China.

LISA DESJARDINS: Meanwhile, Ted Cruz is counting on help from the state’s evangelicals.

SEN. TED CRUZ: Father God, please, continue this awakening. Continue this spirit of revival. Awaken the body of Christ, that we might pull back from the abyss.

LISA DESJARDINS: South Carolina is pivotal because of the calendar. It’s the first presidential vote in the South. But it is important because of numbers.

In 2012, nearly 600,000 Republicans voted in the primary there. That’s more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined. One key part of the political landscape, the military. As many as one in six voters in the Palmetto State is current military or a veteran, and the candidates clearly know it.

DONALD TRUMP: We are going to make our military so big, so strong, so powerful, nobody’s ever going to have to mess with us, folks.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), Republican Presidential Candidate: Who could be complaining about anything, when you think about what these guys endured over there?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), Republican Presidential Candidate: When I’m president, we’re rebuilding the U.S. military.


LISA DESJARDINS: DuBose Kapeluck teaches political science at The Citadel and believes Trump’s tough talk gives him an advantage.

DUBOSE KAPELUCK, The Citadel: The idea that if you poke the United States, we’re going to come back with full force, overwhelming force, and get the job done militarily and pull out, I think that is a sentiment that Trump expresses that resonates well with our people here in the military.

LISA DESJARDINS: True even after Trump went on the attack against former President George W. Bush.

DONALD TRUMP: The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush. He kept us safe? That is not safe.


DUBOSE KAPELUCK: You would expect veterans to be maybe inflamed about that and upset, but that didn’t really faze them. In fact, you saw some sympathy for that point of view, which was, I think, telling.

LISA DESJARDINS: The state has a sharp reputation for what some would call political tricks. In just the past day, the Cruz campaign posted this photo that looks like Marco Rubio shaking hands with Barack Obama. But it is Photoshopped from a stock image that Twitter users found.

The Cruz campaign later posted a different, undoctored photo, and said their candidate has been Photoshopped in others’ ads. And more tricks could still be ahead.

BRUCE HAYNES: They come, frankly, on the weekend during the primary, so the other campaigns don’t have time to respond to these attacks.

LISA DESJARDINS: Candidates now have just hours to try and survive the battle for South Carolina.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins.