COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - The state that fired the first shot in the Civil War is once again battling the U.S. government in a racially charged conflict that is drawing heated rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates.
South Carolina is in a standoff with Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration over a new state law that would require residents to produce a photo ID before they could vote. Federal officials say it could disproportionately keep black voters away from the polls.
For South Carolina’s Republican leaders - and Republican presidential candidates seeking support in the state’s primary on January 21 - the Justice Department’s move is the latest in a series of intrusions into state business by Washington.
Republican candidates are waving the banner of states’ rights as they tout their small-government credentials.
“Each of our states are under assault right now by this administration,” Texas Governor Rick Perry said Saturday at a candidates’ forum in Charleston. “We may be under assault - South Carolina, they’re actually at war with you.”
Such declarations might make for smart politics in a state that has a suspicion of Washington woven into its DNA, but they risk stirring up the race-baiting that has been an ugly feature of South Carolina politics in the past.
The rallying cry of states’ rights was used to defend slavery before the Civil War and racial segregation during the post-World War Two battles over civil rights.
Recently, South Carolina Republicans have argued that the federal government is interfering in their plans for education, healthcare, labor law, immigration policy and voting.
In South Carolina, Perry hasn’t been the only Republican presidential candidate to inject controversial imagery into discussions of states’ rights and bloated federal programs.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich has called Obama a “food stamp president” and suggested that low-income children should clean their schools to learn the value of work and replace unionized janitors.
And former Senator Rick Santorum said last week the coming election would be the most important since 1860, the year before the Civil War began. He has since changed the date to 1980, when conservative icon Ronald Reagan was elected president.
Candidates from a party looking to increase its share of minority voters and who are vying to take on Obama, the United States’ first African-American president, should tread more carefully on racial issues, analysts and others say.
U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking African American in Congress, says some candidates have been using coded phrases to play up racial tension.
“What we hear more and more today is people picking up what I call 21st-century words and phrases to transmit the same thoughts that went into the political procedure years ago,” Clyburn told Reuters.
“That’s the stuff of which dangerous activity is built.”
‘THIS ISN‘T THE ‘60s ANYMORE’
Bashing the federal government is good politics in South Carolina, but any attempt to play on racial tension is likely to backfire, said Clemson University professor J. David Woodard.
“This isn’t the ‘60s anymore; things have changed dramatically,” said Woodard, who also is a Republican consultant. “That would blow up in your face right away if you did that.”
With reporters from around the world crisscrossing South Carolina this week, injecting race into political discussions risks dredging up stereotypes of an Old South that faded away before most of residents here were born, Woodard and others here say.
Increasing urbanization and the arrival of international businesses such as BMW and Michelin have ushered in a new era of tolerance, many residents say.
Republicans proudly point to their Indian-American governor, Nikki Haley, and an African-American congressman, Tim Scott, as evidence that prejudice is largely a thing of the past.
Even so, South Carolina’s electorate remains sharply split along racial lines. In the 2008 presidential election, 73 percent of whites here voted for Republican John McCain, while 96 percent of blacks voted for Obama.
And the old attitudes haven’t disappeared entirely.
“I hate to say it, but ever since the schools integrated (in the 1960s), it went downhill,” unemployed paralegal Vicki Cotterman said at a campaign stop for Perry in Walterboro on Thursday. “The white boys try to be like some of the black thugs - they go around with their pants down to their knees. It’s disrespectful.”
Insurance agent Patti McBride said she believed Obama, a practicing Christian, actually is a Muslim because he has an unusual first name.
“Our country was founded on Christianity, and now we have a Muslim with a Muslim name as the president, for God’s sakes,” McBride said.
South Carolina has been in almost constant conflict with Washington since Obama took office.
The state has joined several others in a legal challenge to Obama’s healthcare law. South Carolina officials have rejected $144 million in federal money for public schools on the grounds that it represents an intrusion into state affairs.
State officials also vigorously fought the National Labor Relations Board, which challenged Boeing Co.’s decision to shift 1,000 jobs into South Carolina from Washington state, where laws are more friendly to labor unions.
“I had no idea that the hardest part about being the governor of South Carolina would be the federal government,” Haley said Wednesday at a rally for Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Before it stepped into the voter ID case, the U.S. Justice Department sued to block a new South Carolina law that would require law officers to check suspects’ immigration status.
The voter ID conflict stems from a new state law that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Federal officials and South Carolina Democrats who oppose the law say it could disenfranchise up to one-third of black and other minority voters.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to address the conflict at a rally in Columbia marking Martin Luther King Day, the national holiday recognizing the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968.
Holder, like Obama, is black. The visit is widely viewed as a way for Obama’s administration to steal some of the spotlight from the Republican primary and remind voters of the policy differences between Democrats and Republicans.
South Carolina is one of six Republican-led states that tightened their laws last year to require a photo ID, a measure conservatives say will deter fraud.
Two other Republican-led states have similar laws in place, while 23 other states require voters to produce some form of identification.
South Carolina, like other largely southern states with a history of racial discrimination, must get pre-approval from the U.S. government before implementing new voting laws.
About 200,000 registered voters in South Carolina do not have a driver’s license or other state-issued ID, according to the state election commission.
Various nationwide studies have indicated that African Americans, Latinos, the elderly, people with disabilities and students are less likely to have a photo ID than other voting groups, in part because of the expense involved in obtaining one.
The Justice Department blocked the law on December 23 on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect minority voters. Republican presidential candidates call it another example of Obama’s overly intrusive government.
“If the only people who vote in elections are law-abiding, hardworking citizens who are deeply committed to America, the left wing of the Democratic Party will cease to exist,” Gingrich said on Friday at a campaign stop in Duncan, South Carolina.
Clyburn, a veteran of the desegregation battles of the 1960s, sees it as an attempt to return to an earlier era when blacks were kept from the polls.
“All of that’s designed to tamp down voter involvement,” Clyburn said. “They can cloak it any way they want to cloak it.”
Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech