Conservative Attitudes Shape South Carolina Democrats

Democrats in South Carolina don't sound a whole lot like Democrats in many other parts of the country, and it's not just because of that venerable Southern accent.

In this part of the country, party faithful often prefer talk of individualism, religion and the American flag over discussions about labor, gay marriage and abortion.

The language here, in fact, bears a closer resemblance to the talk of Republicans. This is a stark political reality that the Democratic presidential hopefuls face as they compete for support in South Carolina's crucial Feb. 3 primary.

The nine White House candidates, including John Kerry (search) who makes his candidacy official Tuesday in Charleston, S.C., are jockeying for support in a state that has held onto remnants of the conservative Democratic Party (search) of the old South. The candidates' challenge is to sound familiar.

"My advice to all of the presidential candidates has been to talk about issues that working people care about," said state Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter. "I don't want Democrats to get sidelined by discussions of civil unions and labor unions and all of that."

There are no precise numbers on registered Democrats or Republicans in South Carolina. Residents do not register under party affiliation, and they can vote in the Democratic or Republican primary - but not both.

The state has grown increasingly Republican. George W. Bush won the state 57-41 percent over Al Gore in 2000; Bob Dole prevailed over then-President Clinton 50-44 percent in 1996. When six-term Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings (search) announced he would not run again, he provided an assessment of South Carolina politics: "It wouldn't be easy for anybody who's a Democrat in this state to get elected."

That conservative perspective is evident on the Democratic side.

"It's the kind of thing where even your most liberal South Carolina Democrat might say, 'Well, I believe in keeping abortion legal in principle, but I might not agree with it.' And that's a far cry" from a Massachusetts Democrat, said Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

Sally Howard, a Democrat from Horry County, said opinions on social issues vary among Democrats, but on fiscal matters, "we'd probably be every bit as conservative as a Republican."

Religion has a major influence on South Carolina Democrats' views on social issues, which tends to produce more conservative attitudes. About half the Democrats expected to vote in the primary are blacks, and several of the Democratic candidates have campaigned where those Democrats often congregate on Sunday - at church.

"The issues like prayer in school, for example, black Democrats are strongly supportive. The issue of gay rights, you find them not supportive," said Bill Moore, a political scientist at the College of Charleston (search).

Waring Howe, a Charleston County member of the state Democratic Party's executive committee, said candidates likely won't focus on issues of gay rights or abortion, but they have to talk about them while in South Carolina.

"There are a whole lot of very diverse subgroups, constituency groups in our party, than there is in the Republican Party," he said. "To not mention some of those issues would perhaps say to those subgroups that we don't know you're there, we don't care about these issues that affect you on a daily basis."

But not all Democrats agree.

As Charlton Hannah waited for customers at the People's Barber Shop in Orangeburg, he said he was still deciding which candidate to support.

"I think Democrats all want the same thing: equal rights, better paying jobs, which means a better living, and a better education system," said Hannah, wiping his brow and ignoring the bits of dark hair on his white coat.

He said he wasn't interested in hearing about the candidates' other views. "As long as it doesn't affect my family or me negatively, it doesn't matter," Hannah said.