CHARLESTON S.C. -- Under majestic live oaks draped with Spanish moss, Steven Colbert, who is exploring a run for president but whose name is not on the ballot, urged a crowd of thousands to vote Saturday for Herman Cain, who is no longer running for president, but whose name is on the South Carolina ballot.
The throng cheered and whooped Friday as this son of Charleston introduced "the Her-man with the plan, the plan so fine, they named it 9-9-9 … the Her-man, the Her-myth, my brother from another mother."
The spirited rally on the campus of the College of Charleston offered an engagingly surreal respite from the tumultuous Republican presidential race. But the race itself, particularly in the last two days, has produced so many strange and startling turns that it sometimes seemed hard to discern the line between parody and reality.
The day before, Iowa Republican officials had sounded like Gilda Radner's old Saturday Night Live character, Emily Litella, with her signature line, "Never mind," as they conceded the caucus ranking they had announced two weeks ago was wrong, that Rick Santorum, not Mitt Romney had collected the most votes in the closely watched caucuses. Or had he? They declared the finish a dead heat, acknowledging that several precincts' votes had gone missing.
Then, the Newt Gingrich campaign was battered by an ex-wife's decision to give an interview to ABC News in which she reported that he had sought "an open marriage" while he was in a relationship with a staffer who is his current wife.
Mr. Gingrich, escalating a tactic he'd employed through the long string of GOP debates, turned a question about the interview against the news media, earning thunderous applause in the final debate of the South Carolina campaign Thursday night.
Mitt Romney, who had been cruising along serenely as the apparent front-runner, was suddenly battling to stem a surge in Mr. Gingrich's polling numbers. He held a consensus lead of double digits early in the week, as former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out and endorsed him.
In a Clemson University survey released Friday, the former Massachusetts governor was trailing the former House speaker, 32 percent to 26 percent. But in a race that has proven consistently volatile, all sides recognized that such numbers could change quickly. Trailing in that survey were Rep. Ron Paul, at 11 percent, and former Sen. Rick Santorum, at 9 percent.
Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich are competing for the evangelical Christians and social conservatives who represent a significant share of the state's Republicans. Their votes could be decisive Saturday, but analysts caution that the temptation to focus on social conservatives obscures other, changing realities about the state's people and emerging voting patterns.
In South Carolina, the 9.9 percent unemployment rate tops the national average. But the overall number masks a sharp economic and demographic divide in the state. Reminders of the old South abound here. In a stroll through the Capitol grounds in Columbia, you pass a Confederate battle flag at the base of the Capitol steps, a memorial to the Confederate dead, a statue of Strom Thurmond.
But that reality exists beside a newer South Carolina whose voters bear little resemblance to good ol' boy stereotypes. New factories erected by firms such as BMW and Michelin, in the Greenville-Spartanburg area at its northwest border, and booming communities in the coastal strip from Myrtle Beach south through Charleston have altered the character of the state and the Republican Party.
"There's a saying that every time a moving van pulls up in South Carolina, it unloads two things, retirees and Republicans," said Karen Kedrowski, who chairs the political science department at Winthrop College.
"In addition to retiree growth, you have business people, middle managers -- a pretty affluent demographic. Those people vote their pocketbooks," she said, noting that the GOP's center of gravity was gradually shifting to those economic conservatives and away from the rural, evangelical conservatives, that, to be sure, still represent a significant share of the party.
Former Gov. Mark Sanford is known better across the country for his peregrinations from the Appalachian Trail to Argentina, but one of his predecessors, former Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, pointed out that he was also noteworthy in the state's history as the first governor in recent memory who was not born in the state.
"I think that reflects the changing demographics of the state," he said. "We're much more welcoming to newcomers. … We still have the old South Carolina that's predominately small-town manufacturing and is suffering disproportionately in the current economy. But then you have the new more vibrant areas that have had dramatic growth."
In the more booming areas, Mr. Hodges concedes, "The newcomers tend to be Republicans. That's accounted for part of the growth in the Republican Party … retirees tend to vote Republican."
So the presidential candidates circumnavigating the Palmetto State in the last frantic days are courting a varied group of voters, not a monolithic party dominated by the Old South. Offering the 2008 primary here as a template for current game plans, Ms. Kedrowski said, "Romney is following the [Sen. John] McCain strategy of trying to appeal to the bigger cities and the coast. Santorum is following the [former Arkansas Gov.] Huckabee strategy targeting social conservatives."
But she emphasized that those groups, particularly in this economy, were not monolithic in their politics. "It's hard to think just about gay marriage when you've been out of work for a year," she said.
The economic conservatives heavily represented among newcomers and in the state's vigorous tea party movement aren't likely to move as a bloc, either.
The state tea party convention, which met in Myrtle Beach last weekend, followed its grass-roots tradition in not making any endorsement in the presidential contest. On the floor of the convention it was easy to find supporters of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum, but Romney followers were scarce.
"It's my understanding, from talking to a lot of the grass-roots activists, that they're united not wanting Mitt Romney to be the nominee," said Luke Towery, the vice president of the Myrtle Beach tea party, a Gingrich supporter.
But Gov. Nikki Haley, who was elected with strong tea party support, has endorsed Mr. Romney and campaigned for him across the state. Ms. Haley frequently touts her own success, "If this state can elect a 38-year-old Indian-American," as evidence of the state and her party's changing character.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 412-263-1562.