Photos by Craig Hudson. A big thanks to Karoli for making them into a video.
Charleston, South Carolina is filled with beautiful people. When strangers walk past each other on the sidewalk they say hello. Men hold doors for women. At a crowded Starbucks the two most common words were "please" and "excuse me."
But that Southern decorum is contrasted by Charleston’s dark side. This is where at Fort Sumter the Civil War started. Even today, it can resemble a segregated city.
This dichotomy makes it a fitting place for a Republican party to showcase candidates as they struggle to find one that is presentable to the general public on the outside, but not too sinister on the inside.
On Friday, every contender for the Republican presidential nomination made a speech near Charleston, South Carolina. They’re competing for the state that has picked the eventual Republican nominee since 1980.
On Friday morning, Newt Gingrich was holding a slim lead over Mitt Romney. He had fought hard in the debate on Thursday to overcome allegations he had asked his second wife for an open marriage. And Romney’s decision not to release his tax returns until April gave even Rick Santorum and Ron Paul the feeling they had an opportunity to win South Carolina.
At 10 am on Friday at a large, hangar at the Charleston airport, Ron Paul came out from behind a curtain to a young woman’s cheer of “You’re the greatest!” The small crowd made the space feel empty.
“Quite frankly I feel pretty good about last night,” said Paul, on his debate performance. During his speech he bashed entitlement programs, promised a trillion in cuts to the federal budget and proclaimed the current government is “murdering our civil liberties.”
As he was leaving I asked him why he wasn’t running as a Libertarian, as he did in 1988, he snarled, “I’m a Republican.”
I left the hangar and headed downtown for the Stephen Colbert and Herman Cain rally at the College of Charleston. Colbert is a native son of Charleston.
A crowd of over 1,000 people had turned out to the shady courtyard dotted with oaks covered in Spanish moss. Colbert had a marching band and a gospel choir introduce him.
“It’s good to be back home,” said Colbert, “I hope this doesn’t turn into an occupation, but if it does, you’ll all be pepper sprayed very politely. We are in Charleston.”
He welcomed “the most beautiful people in the world” and then Herman Cain, “the man we’ve all gathered here to introduce me.” Cain was in top form. He has become a character of the character he created. He quoted Pokemon, sang, and endorsed we the people for president.
Colbert said to vote for Cain, because “Cain is me.”
After the rally, Dominique Awis, a College of Charleston student, said she was helping to mobilize students to vote for Cain tomorrow. She said most of the people she knew were going to vote for Cain.
Colbert drew easily the largest crowd of the day. He brought Cain because Cain will be on the ballot, while Colbert missed the window to register as a candidate.
“He’s making a whole mockery of the system,” said Ryan “The Bull” Johnson, a Charleston resident. “No one cares about the actual process, but throw a celebrity in and people want to be a part of it.”
Perhaps the most well-known candidate in the primary is Mitt Romney. Romney’s campaign is very politically correct. To maintain this correctness they found the two black people who had showed up to the event and put them on stage with other stand-ins from the audience. At first, they only had one black person, but then they found another young man and put him front and center.
Romney arrived in a bus, even though we were inside a building. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell were with him. McDonnell announced his endorsement of Romney.
“I’m endorsing Mitt because he’s the best person to beat Obama in November,” said McDonnell.
Romney talked about how he met his wife at a party when she was 16. They’ve been married 42 years. He’s not Newt.
He never mentioned the other candidates in his speech. He focused in on Obama. He said the president is in over his head, that he’s transforming America into a European social welfare state and weakening the country’s military.
During the event I stood next to a couple visiting from New York. They told me they were Democrats and wanted to see a candidate up close. At the end of Romney’s speech he shook hands with the audience members in the front.
“I’ve heard when you shake someone’s hand you vote for them,” said the man from New York. He went up and shook Romney’s hand.
“Are you going to vote for him,” I asked.
“Probably not,” he said.
Then Romney handed photographer Craig Hudson the first piece of Nikki Haley’s birthday cake. I left after that.
Next up was the God-loving, gay-hating Rick Santorum. Santorum arrived at the “Patriot Dinner” for the young Republican group of the Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, in a dark blue sweater vest.
Before being introduced, a Charleston City Councilman proclaimed, “Charleston is home to many historic events. I hope it is home to another historic event—the firing of Barack Obama.”
And added, “Charleston was home to the first shot of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. Amen.” The crowd laughed.
Santorum takes pride in his sweater vest.
“I’ve set a fashion trend, as you know.” Santorum said. “In a dance hall you’d walk by the guy with the sweater vest. But he’s the guy you can trust.”
Santorum said the current campaign situation is similar to the story of Goldilocks. You have one candidate that is too cool.
“He can’t seem to click with Republicans.”
One candidate that’s too hot.
“A record that’s all over the place”
And finally someone that’s just right, himself.
Santorum’s frequent radio ads here proclaim that he’s a true conservative who's strong on life, marriage and the right to own a gun. But outside of the conservative bubble most people know him from a Google search.
The last stop of the day was on an aircraft carrier for Newt Gingrich’s event. There were about 500 people there and he was repeating debate talking points. Callista was standing at his side, staring at him. The crowd was mostly male.
He stood on the stage flanked by Boy Scouts with a giant American flag draped behind him. He touted American exceptionalism.
“I want these kids to grow up knowing it, living it and giving it to their grandchildren,” said Newt. As for fidelity, he didn’t mention it.
He delivered a history lesson on the USS Yorktown that didn’t get much farther than saying it carried out missions for freedom and then asked for the audience’s support.
Then he left the stage and sat down at a nearby desk to sign books with Callista.
Outside it was a beautiful night in Charleston, from the carrier I could see the city's lights. One of these candidates will take on President Obama, but on Friday in Chucktown it was unclear who it would be.