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THE BIERBAUER REPORT

March 28, 2007

CHARLES BIERBAUER

by CHARLES BIERBAUER

Somewhere between the Ides of March (always a downer) and the first day of spring (hope eternal), the calendar shrank dramatically. Then just as we passed the equinox, the equilibrium was further upset. All this will be far more evident by this time next year when, for all practical purposes, the 2008 presidential nominees may be settled.

Any hopes of a gradual crescendo allowing presidential candidates time to build on early successes were wiped out during the past week when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger scratched California’s primary off the June calendar and wrote it on February’s page instead. The change, Governor Schwarzenegger said, would give California “the influence it deserves” in the selection process.

California’s eagerness to get in the game has tectonic implications, but then California famously sits on fault lines that produce major earthquakes. Florida delivered the aftershock when its state legislature took steps to move the Florida primary to January 29.

South Carolina, sitting on both seismic and political fault lines of its own, had figured to be the state to shake up early candidate rankings in both parties. Our primaries, expected January 29 and February 2 (don’t make me explain that partisan quirk here), would have been the first after traditional kickoffs in Iowa and New Hampshire (also too idiosyncratic to get into now). The notion, not a bad one, was that South Carolina would cast the first fairly representative vote that would start to winnow the anticipated large field of Republicans and Democrats in the 2008 race.

Should we worry? Should we be angry with Arnold? The Floridians? Have we been dissed?

South Carolina now may have to share the first good shakeup of the candidate fields. But California’s action, especially, has turned what might have been a string of aftershocks into a mammoth tsunami on February 5th with 20 or more states joining that day’s super-sized primary.

The frontloaded calendar could make South Carolina’s role all the more important and its glow all the briefer. Even as candidates traverse the Palmetto State looking for support, they will be looking beyond us to the massive number of voters—more importantly, convention delegates—at stake a week later. Don’t expect any to linger here.

What does it mean to us?

• South Carolina’s candidate debates will take on greater significance. Three are already scheduled:
*Democratic candidates will be at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg on April 26th.
Yes, that’s this year. MSNBC will broadcast that debate.
*Republican candidates will be at the University of South Carolina on May 15th with Fox News broadcasting.
*CNN (anxious not to be left out) and the Congressional Black Caucus will sponsor a Democratic candidates’ debate in January, 2008, time and place still to be announced.

There will be other debates in other states. There just won’t be time between Iowa/New Hampshire and Super Tuesday for all to share the limelight.

• The media will be more important to the candidates than meeting voters face to face. The grumbles are already heard from New Hampshire voters that the candidates are not showing up in their kitchens and cafes this season.

Media attention comes in different forms:
*There’s free media. A candidate merely comes to town and the local print and broadcast press report on the event—usually favorably.
*There’s earned media—you actually make news.
*There’s my own media—a candidate’s web site.
*There’s paid media—currently only Republican Mitt Romney is paying for ads. Substantial paid media will come in a blitz close to the South Carolina primaries.

Campaign funds, though seemingly vast, are allocated strategically. Some candidates may spend more ad money here, desperate to make an impact and because South Carolina television markets are a lot cheaper than southern California’s or Florida’s. Some candidates surely will divert ad funds away from South Carolina to more favorable Super Tuesday states. No one, not even Hillary Clinton, is likely to have enough money to play in every state. The shortened calendar means early winners will have just a few days to spark their fund-raising. The rest will need all the free media they can get, though waning stars do not attract media attention.

There may be fewer stars in the southern constellation because of the calendar compression. The winnowing is under way. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has already left the field. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel vacillated last week, much like New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s “to be or not to be” hesitation in 1992. Hagel suggested he could make a decision later this year. Maybe not. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich seems poised to jump in if all other Republican candidates falter. Democrats seem to be sifting their way to Hillary, Barack Obama and “somebody else.”

South Carolina will certainly get its fill of presidential candidates for the next ten months. That has not changed. The suspense just may not last as long. We can, I suppose, thank Governor Schwarzenegger for that.

###

Charles Bierbauer covered presidential campaigns for CNN from 1984 through 2000. He is now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. His views and analysis are his own, and not those of the university. Dean Bierbauer is also the senior contributing editor and consultant to http://www.schotline.com.

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