Mailing it in: In South Carolina, a trip to the post box says everything about the GOP campaign

Rodney Welch
January 21, 2012

ELGIN, S.C.--It can take my mail-lady more than the average 10 seconds to fill my box these days. Earlier this week, she even had to roll back, because she thought she might have missed something. I was able to walk out to greet her before she got through cramming everything in.

"Make sure all my campaign stuff is there," I said.

"Oh absolutely," she said. "We have to suffer to put it in, and you have to suffer to take it out."

That day's mess of campaign pottage brought the usual: two flyers from Mitt Romney, one from Ron Paul and, bless his heart, a flyer from Rick Perry--who had already dropped out of the race and endorsed Newt Gingrich.

His flyer had a different message. It urged me not to waste my vote on Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum.

After resigning from Congress, the flyer said, Gingrich made $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, a lending institution that "helped create the housing crisis." Gingrich advised both lenders, "in his capacity as a 'historian,'" the flyer added. "But Americans have had enough history with insiders who use their previous service to make a quick buck."

Also, Santorum "sold out his conservative principles" when he backed Sen. Arlen Specter, who turned Democrat and helped pass Obamacare.

It was, obviously, too little and way too late, but the bad timing of this missive offers some insight into just how nervous campaigns become in the final clinch.

Looking at that sad little flyer from Perry, I could sense the sheer sweaty anxiety as his campaign finally crumbled. Surely a flurry of phone calls went back and forth: Have you sent out that Perry flyer? No? Well hold off, let me call headquarters ... Yes, they're saying don't send it …no, they're saying do send it, yes, go, get to the P.O. by five … Hi, me again, you didn't already send it, did you? You did? Damn…

If you let your campaign mail pile up for a week instead of throwing it away, and stop clicking the channel when attack ads come on--both of which I did for the sole purpose of writing this article--the daily barrage serves as a barometer of who's leading, who is closing in, who has the most cash, and who is desperate.

The flyer was the first piece of mail I'd seen from Perry in weeks. Newt Gingrich, who at this writing is either threatening Romney's lead or has overtaken it, hasn't been much of a mail guy either: two flyers, both hitting Romney, one for his "Pro-Abortion Record" and one for his deficit-reduction plan. Not only that, Romney is the "second most dangerous man in America."

Yes, it's that time in the campaign. If you have red meat, please throw it to the crowd.

I haven't received squat from Santorum (but you can't miss him on TV, either boosting himself in his own ads or being attacked in someone else's). The only real players in the mailbox battle, so far as I can tell, are Mitt Romney and Ron Paul—the leading candidate and the man in third.

The Romney flyers are confident. They are the work of someone shoring up his base. Although the former Massachusetts governor is trying to remind everyone that he is not a so-called "Washington insider," he is also letting people know that he has the approval of the establishment. He has the endorsement of South Carolina's governor, Nikki Haley, and he kinda sorta has the blessing of Jim DeMint, South Carolina's U.S. senator from the tea party. (Actually, DeMint hasn't endorsed anyone, but he did say something Romneyish in 2007, and again in 2012. Both quotes are on one of the flyers.)

Romney's attack mail focuses squarely on Gingrich and Santorum, easily and effectively using images to make his case: Newt's scowling, porcine head versus  Romney's tall, Lincolnesque bearing;  Santorum biting his lip in frustration versus smiling, confident Romney, backed by an American flag and an applauding Nikki Haley.

Romney doesn't, so far as I can tell, even acknowledge Ron Paul, although Paul obviously can't afford not to notice Romney. The other day I got a letter from Paul: "Do you believe Palmetto State workers should be forced to pay a union boss just to have a job and feed their families?"

Although Paul lets his libertarian freak flag fly during debates, on the home front he knows that you can't really win my state without appealing to the hard right: against unions, against abortion, against Obamacare. A few days ago, he sent a long letter detailing his anti-abortion stance. Just after that, he sent a DVD.  He says everything pro-lifing, climate change-denying, immigrant-loathing voters want to hear: Romney "said abortion should be legal"; Gingrich "wants to give illegal aliens citizenship"; Perry "endorsed environmental fraud Al Gore for President." He's a 76-year- old man with a one-time title shot, and it shows.

By its nature, the TV campaign is louder and more relentless, as every commercial break on the Today show and the local evening news is filled with voices cancelling each other out, as each candidate proclaims he's the only one who can beat Obama.

Ron Paul goes after Gingrich and Santorum as "serial hypocrites" who "can't be trusted." Gingrich likewise attacks Romney as a pro-abortion governor who "can't be trusted." Romney's Restore America's Future Super PAC, in an ad of perhaps questionable effectiveness, hits Gingrich because he keeps on admitting to making mistakes-- a bad thing, apparently. More to the point, Paul outlines Gingrich's contradictions, using clips of Rush Limbaugh, Megyn Kelly and Ed Schultz, while a creepy Phillip Glass-like score plays ominously in the background.

"This is the cauldron," Henry McMaster, the state attorney general, told me last week at the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business, where his candidate Jon Huntsman was fielding questions. "We're out of the frying-pan and into the fire, because South Carolina, historically, beginning in 1980, is the one who picked the president."

Last weekend, his man had picked up the endorsement of The State newspaper. He dropped out mere hours later.

That's how fast it goes in this ongoing battle for the vote of Current Resident, set to conclude today. The mail lady and I are looking forward to it.

Rodney Welch is a writer in South Carolina. He reviews books for the Free-Times in Columbia, S.C..

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