Last week, Dr. Chris Grant’s Presidential Primaries and the Media class traveled to South Carolina to follow GOP candidates around the state in preparation for Saturday’s primary. The week proved to be one of the most transformational in the race so far, with the suspension of Rick Perry’s campaign, the revelation of Santorum’s Iowa victory and a surprise win for Gingrich in the primary.
Wednesday, Jan. 18
The group left Mercer bright and early at 6:30 a.m. hoping to make it to South Carolina in time for a Mitt Romney rally at Wofford College. But, in keeping with the unpredictable nature of presidential campaigns, their schedule changed and they ended up in Greer, S.C. at a meet and greet with Governor Rick Perry. Several members of the class went into the situation with a negative view of Perry, but were pleasantly surprised after meeting him in person.
“I liked him more on a personal level, so I guess I can disassociate liking him personally from not liking his policies,” said junior Chase Williams.
The class made up more than half of the Perry supporters present at his speech, an ominous bit of foreshadowing of his announcement the following day. He spoke to the students and a few scattered locals at Southern Thymes, a small café in downtown Greer.
Perry stressed the importance of recalling regulations put in place since the beginning of the Obama administration. “If they can’t be proven to clearly have a positive impact on the health and safety of our citizens and if they’re job killers, then they’re gone,” he said.
He also blasted Obama’s veto of the Keystone pipeline, saying that every barrel of oil brought in from an ally is a barrel of oil that does not have to be bought from someone like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. “I’m tired of the political correctness that comes out of Washington D.C. all too often where Americans’ interests are put secondary…to some other individual’s feelings,” he said.
Perry’s speech focused heavily on patriotism and suggested that America needs a president who will not apologize for American exceptionalism, both militarily and economically.
The class shook Perry’s hand one last time, took some pictures and departed for Easley, S.C., where Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was set to address a crowd at Mutt’s BBQ.
The difference in the momentum of the two candidates was immediately apparent, as Gingrich’s rally was packed with supporters who waited in line and stood when seating was no longer available.
Gingrich focused heavily on denigrating President Obama, indicating that he is looking toward the general election. He drew a comparison between Obama as a “food stamp Democratic president” and the “paycheck Republican president” Gingrich would be.
“Obama wants a European system where he can tell us what to do…We’re going to teach him a lesson in the fall because the American people are inferior to no one,” He told a cheering crowd.
He repeated his promise to challenge the president to seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglass style debates, with no moderator but the concession of a teleprompter for Obama. “After all, if you were going to try to defend ObamaCare, wouldn’t you want a teleprompter?” he quipped. “I’m confident that without notes I can defend the truth about America better than he can defend his fantasy with notes.”
Gingrich also criticized Obama’s decision on the Keystone pipeline, calling him the “most destructive president in modern times.”
The crowd was energetic and engaged throughout Gingrich’s speech, giving the class a preview of the positive feelings towards the Speaker in S.C.
Not all students in the left with similar sentiments, however.
“The crowd that Newt drew to his rally was distinctly different than other candidates. These rallies were characterized by anger towards President Obama, not a hope in the Republican candidate’s vision,” said senior Trent White. “The kind of people he attracts is telling of his candidacy because he does not inspire a unified Republican vision, he simply inspires anti-Obama sentiments. It could be enough to get him the votes, however.”
White pointed out that his observations were true for South Carolina, but he is curious to see how Gingrich angles his campaign in other states.
Thursday, Jan. 19
The class rose before the sun to leave the Days Inn in Clinton, S.C. for the Mills House Inn in Charleston, S.C. where the popular MSNBC morning show ‘Morning Joe’ was filming. Students packed into a crowded dining room to watch Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski discuss the candidates and hope for a shot of being on television.
After the show, students had the opportunity to shake hands with the cast and take photos. Fortunately, the class was also able to score an invitation to ‘Morning Joe’s’ luncheon in downtown Charleston where Joe and Mika took questions from the crowd.
Before lunch, however, the group attended a Ron Paul rally at the College of Charleston.
Paul energized the younger crowd with his often-used liberty rhetoric. Rather than calling Obama out by name, Paul criticized the government as a whole.
“They can’t manage our lives, they can’t manage our country and they certainly can’t manage all these countries around the world,” he said.
Foreign policy was a key topic of Paul’s speech, and he stressed that he is not an isolationist, but a non-interventionist who still favors a more free and open society.
Paul also called for a full audit of the Federal Reserve System and said “the only thing our current government is good at is creating debt.”
The group had a few hours of free time to explore downtown Charleston before heading to North Charleston where the CNN Presidential debate was held. Two students had the opportunity to attend the debate, while the rest watched either from a Mexican restaurant across the street or with fellow political science students at Presbyterian College.
Friday, Jan. 20
The students got a later start, arriving at a Mitt Romney rally at a tree farm in northern S.C. around 11 a.m. The rainy morning did not seem to deter Romney supporters, as many of them braved the showers to hear the governor speak.
Senior Sean Kennedy, however, said he noticed the energy of Romney’s crowd was distinctly lower than that of Gingrich’s crowd the previous day.
Students spent the afternoon scoping out candidates’ headquarters in Columbia, where they would be volunteering the following day.
They hit a Santorum rally at a restaurant in Chapin, S.C., but the room was at capacity, so they had to settle for a handshake outside as the senator walked in.
Saturday, Jan. 21
The group split their volunteering time between Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich’s headquarters.
Ron Paul’s was not the first campaign senior Gene Mitchell had ever worked on, and he found it much more organized than the local campaigns he has experience with.
“Everyone there who was working for him, even those like myself who were not Ron Paul supporters, were really inspired by what [Ron Paul] had to say,” Mitchell said.
Students who volunteered for Paul and Gingrich mostly made phone calls for a phone bank, but Romney’s volunteers got some more field experience, going door-to-door and standing in the rain holding signs.
After dinner, the majority of the group headed to the Columbia fairgrounds where Romney supporters awaited the results of the primary.
The students stayed to hear Romney’s speech after the early victory call for Gingrich, and several got the opportunity to shake his hand.
The group left for Macon Sunday morning, exhausted but exhilarated.
Grant, who chaperoned the trip, said he feels the it was a success. “I think anytime you can see politics unfolding before your eyes it’s really beneficial,” he said. “It takes it out of the classroom and makes it real in a way that you can’t do just by reading about it.”