With New Hampshire behind us, it’s on to South Carolina, which holds its Republican presidential primary on Feb. 24. What can you say about the pleasant-weather place? Perhaps James Louis Petigru, who served the Palmetto State as attorney general back in the 1820s, best captured the political zeitgeist: “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.’’
To say that South Carolina politics tend toward the rough and tumble is to engage in classic understatement. On the surface level, then, that would seem to make it a fine fit for Donald Trump as he faces off against former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. Trump is, after all, a bare-knuckle political brawler. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump compared rival Ben Carson to a child molester and said he had “pathological’’ anger issues that couldn’t be cured. “You don’t cure a child molester,’’ he said. “There’s no cure for it. Pathological, there’s no cure for that.’’ He later selected Carson to be his secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
He accused Ted Cruz of stealing an Iowa caucuses victory from him, the first instance of what would become a pattern of ridiculous election denialism. He later insinuated, absurdly, that Cruz’s father, Rafael, might somehow have been involved in the assassination of JFK. Cruz recently endorsed Trump again for president.
If past is prologue, rumor-mongering and character assassination of that sort wouldn’t necessarily shock the collective sensibilities of South Carolina. And yet there’s an added wrinkle there, one that could make the erstwhile Iodine State a pitfall for the Republican frontrunner.
Trump is well ahead of Haley there, at least according to pre-Iowa polls, but as the former two-term governor, Haley is well-known and enjoys residual good feelings. The question is this: Given Trump’s ever-present urge to trash his rivals, can he conduct a tough but nonsexist campaign, particularly when faced with a candidate who has now found the perfect teasing tone to take with him?
“Get on a debate stage and let’s go,’’ she challenged at a Thursday rally in South Carolina. “Bring it, Donald. Show me what you got!’’
That’s just the sort of thing that makes him bristle.
As we know from long experience, Trump regularly says derogatory things about women. In the 2016 primary cycle, he belittled the appearance of Carly Fiorina, the only woman in the Republican field, saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?’’
He also threatened to reveal unspecified negative information about Cruz’s wife, Heidi. Meanwhile, who can forget his crude insinuation that then-Fox News’ host Megyn Kelly’s debate question about his history of calling women he didn’t like fat pigs, dogs, and slobs was prompted by her menstrual cycle?
As we saw yet again on Tuesday in New Hampshire, Trump lashes out when he’s angry. In his bizarre Granite State “victory speech’’ rant, he didn’t confine himself just to castigating Haley for portraying her third-place Iowa showing and her second-place New Hampshire finish as momentum-building accomplishments. He also made catty comments about the dress she wore to her primary night event. How high school was that? During the New Hampshire campaign, meanwhile, he said she wasn’t smart enough or tough enough to be president. He regularly describes her as “birdbrain’’ on his Truth Social media platform. This, mind you, is the woman he refuses to debate.
There’s added danger for this reason: South Carolina isn’t just about South Carolina. The Palmetto State is now at the center of the national political stage. The race there will command the attention of everyone in the country interested in politics. So what happens in South Carolina won’t stay in South Carolina.
One of Trump’s big political vulnerabilities is with college-educated, and more broadly, suburban woman, who have been put off by his boorishness. This time around, his campaign has generally been more professional and disciplined. But as we saw on Tuesday night in New Hampshire, Trump himself is not.
Now, MAGA will obviously forgive him anything. But that’s not true of other voters, as we’ve seen in exit polls from both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Can Trump control his inner caveman? The odds, obviously, are against it. And that’s just one more thing that will make the South Carolina primary an unpredictable, not-to-be-missed spectacle.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.
Image Credits: Chip Somodelvilla – Getty Images