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South Carolina Democrats May Sway GOP’s Primary

By Mark Z. Barabak

With most polls showing a dead-heat, the South Carolina presidential primary is shaping up as a pivotal event in the fight for the Republican nomination. And it’s Democrats who could decide it.

Like Beth McKiernan, who loves President Clinton and subscribes to the Democratic Party orthodoxy on issues such as abortion and gun control. Still, she plans to cast her ballot Saturday for John McCain, the first Republican ever to win her vote.

“I hate to sound trite, but I love his biography,” McKiernan, 44, said of her fellow Navy veteran, a Vietnam War hero. “I want somebody in there who can roll with the punches.”

Rules allowing all comers to participate in South Carolina’s vote have created a crazy-quilt contest in this first Southern primary, blurring party lines, testing political loyalties and probing whether the GOP is ripe for the sort of realignment that helped make Ronald Reagan president.

Hoping to replicate his victory in New Hampshire -- which became a rout thanks to heavy support from independents -- McCain is aggressively courting cross-over votes in South Carolina. “Come Democrats! Come Libertarians! Come vegetarians! Come all of you!” the senator from Arizona cried at a recent barbecue in Seneca.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, meantime, is running far stronger than McCain among traditional Republican voters -- the bricks and mortar of his hoped-for Southern firewall -- and has sought to make McCain’s appeal to swing voters a strike against him. “I’m a little concerned about who’s coming into the party,” Bush told an audience in Saluda earlier this week, suggesting cross-over Democrats may be trying to sabotage the Republicans by picking the weakest candidate to face their nominee in the fall.

The results Saturday will resound in contests that follow three days later in Michigan and Arizona, and two weeks after that in California, New York and more than a dozen other states. A McCain victory in South Carolina would throw the Republican race wide open by turning establishment jitters over Bush’s stumbling start into widespread panic; a Bush win could nip McCain’s insurgency before it blooms into more than a February fancy.

The key question is this: how many Democrats like McKiernan will shed their party allegiance -- at least temporarily -- and how many independents will join them to vote in the Republican primary?

“It’s the signal variable, absolutely the most important thing in determining the outcome,” said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science teacher and co-director of the statewide Palmetto Poll. “I’ve looked at figures until I was blue in the face, trying to figure it out and I can’t. If anybody tells you they can, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Dick Harpootlian, South Carolina’s Democratic chairman, denies any organized effort to muck around in the GOP contest. But with so much focus on the Bush-McCain race -- the advertising and news coverage has been pervasive as the pollen that coats the state in springtime -- anyone who is politically aware can’t help but get interested.

Another big lure for Democratic loyalists to vote in the Republican race is they have no competing primary of their own on Saturday.