Monday, April 23, 2007

S.C. values put Romney on top with paid votes

Vote buying gives flip flopping Romney the #1 spot in South Carolina. Anonymous attacks and emails. The 2008 Republican contenders keep hitting each other below the belt in South Carolina

Republican Party politics in South Carolina is a down and dirty affair.

"We tried to explain to the folks in Boston early on that it's a little different here," says Terry Sullivan, a veteran political operative who is running former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in the Palmetto State. "It's kind of a knife fight."

Not that Sullivan, or anyone else for that matter, will admit to ever drawing a blade. That's part of the game. When you work in South Carolina, you pretend to take the high road, even as your allies conspire behind the scenes to bend or break the rules. They set up phony grass-roots groups, launch anonymous attacks and, as happened this weekend, pay money for straw poll votes. Everyone is usually on the attack, and few are as innocent as they claim.

On Friday night, tempers flared amid the die-hards of the Greenville County Republican Party, who gathered in the downtown expo center to prepare for Saturday's convention. All the major presidential candidates, with the notable exception of John McCain, were coming, and the party planned to stage a straw poll, an unscientific survey of the county's "delegates," which basically meant anyone who paid $15 and submitted some paperwork.

Straw polls in South Carolina are an obsession and a scourge for Republicans, the topic of endless press releases and meaningless chest thumping. They are easily corruptible. At some point on Friday night, Esther Wagner, the county GOP treasurer, spotted a Romney aide across the hall, and accused him of paying delegate fees to pump up Romney's poll numbers. Wagner's suspicions had been aroused earlier in the month, when she received a stack of last-minute registrations from about 15 to 20 people. Most of the fees had been paid in cash. "That is unusual," said Wagner, who has done work on the side for another candidate, John Cox, a minor rival to Romney. "Most people pay [by] check." Then she got a call from a Romney supporter named Jeff Lynch, who mentioned in passing that someone had paid his fee.

The women of the Greenville County Republican Party confronted the Romney aide with Wagner's allegations. "Chris Slick, who is Romney's grass-roots field coordinator, was emphatically denying it," says Betty Poe, the president of the Greenville County Republican Women's Club. According to three separate accounts of the incident, Slick maintained that neither the Romney campaign, nor any campaign staff, had paid delegate fees. "But he said an individual paid for someone," Poe remembers.

By midday Saturday, the upstate area was rife with rumors of a fixed straw poll. When I asked Sullivan, Romney's state advisor, if the campaign was paying for supporters' votes, he said, "No, absolutely not." But he admitted to recruiting people to the polls as so-called proxy delegates, which he said was a common practice among the campaigns. The campaign of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also admitted some "friend-to-friend" recruitment of delegates, but denied paying any delegate fees. A few hours later, I tracked down Lynch, a gospel musician, at his home in Greenville.

"We were delegates of Mitt Romney, so we didn't have to pay," Lynch said. Like thousands of South Carolinians, Lynch and his wife, Melissa, have been bombarded with direct mail from the presidential candidates. He sent back a card from Romney, saying he would like to help. Sometime later, he said, Slick, the Romney aide, showed up at his door, and told him not to worry about the money. "He came over and we signed papers to be delegates, so we wouldn't have to pay the $15 fee," Lynch said. "Is there a problem?"

The Greenville GOP has no rules barring a candidate, or anyone else, from paying a supporter's delegate fees, says Wendy Nanney, the outgoing chairman. Salon
hit tracker