COLUMBIA, S.C. - It's time again for South Carolina's quadrennial 15 minutes of fame, when candidates discover their Southern accents, their admiration for Jesus, their deep affection for grits and, with luck, a possible genetic link to Nat Turner.
Time, too, to dust off the camera-ready cast of local characters as the media descend.
There's Huntin' Dude, who drives a pickup with a gun rack and enjoys an occasional chaw. There's Gap-Toothed Dude, the not-too-bright boy whose Diddy's Grandiddy fought in the War of Northern Aggression and who'll give up his gun and rebel flag just as soon as the satellite trucks trundle over the hill.
Next is Angry-African-American, whose soul can't be rested because Jesse Jackson and the NAACP won't let it. Then there's plucky Southern Belle, that variously coiffed or pony-tailed SUV-driving soccer mom who has a law degree, but is a stay-at-home mom first.
And of course, there's "Tammy," the minimum-wage truck-stop/diner waitress who calls everybody "Hon" and wouldn't take nothin' for her grandbabies. She just turned 35 and wouldn't touch a welfare dollar if you slipped it into her Marlboro Lights.
That leaves White Guy, but who cares about him? Unless he's a veteran or unemployed. Gotta love those disenfranchised textile and steel workers, especially if you're John "I'm just a linthead" Edwards. And veterans are supposed to find common cause with John F. "What Botox?" Kerry, who is either for or against the war in Iraq depending, apparently, on which direction his remaining facial muscles are pointing.
Or, alternatively, Wesley Clark, the argyle general, who can't help mentioning that he is a general, not a mere lieutenant. Not that he means anything by it.
So go the leading demographic blocks, leaving a smattering of hippies, nerds, black church ladies and self-loathing Trustafarians ("So we inherited our wealth from generations of slave-holding plantation owners and textile magnates, but we hate it, o-KAY?!") to be divvied up among Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich.
Black church ladies to Sharpton.
Angry white youth (and seven blacks) to Dean.
Republicans to Lieberman.
Both hippies to Kucinich.
Let the media blitz begin. The problem, of course, is that when the ratio of media to human beings is about 2-to-1, finding a unique angle is tricky. And owing to an ice storm that knocked out power for several days leading up to Thursday's debate, most South Carolinians were seeking indoor heat sources rather than re-enacting Civil War battles and sporting aborted-fetus lapel pins, as they usually do.
Still camera crews were popping up in the usual places. As I drove past the Capitol building a few days ago, a crew huddled in front of the statehouse on the single recorded day that the Confederate flag, usually a lifeless rag, was unfurled perpendicular to the ground. I glanced around looking for Sharpton, figuring he had rented industrial wind machines, but it was only Johnnie Cochran reiterating his endorsement:
"If there no WMD's in Iraq/You got to give Big Al a crack!"
Later I went to catch a Blues Traveler concert, organized to support Clark. The show was canceled when Clark couldn't make it, but two young soldiers at the front door told me they had just met Al Sharpton at a nearby hotel. They were so pleased by the chance encounter that I resisted the urge to discuss their thoughts on the Federal Reserve.
By the time I reached the hotel, Sharpton had vanished, but the bar was filled with about 50 to 60 Deaniacs gathered to watch the New Hampshire primary returns and to do what Deaniacs do best when The Scream isn't around: look sullen as they ponder the unfairness of life. Here they are, Smart Young Angry People with Internet access, and they're not winning!
They're also not shaving or, apparently, taking advantage of today's remarkable array of hair-care products. I understand that high-octane intellectualism requires a degree of vanity-free unkemptness, but I kept thinking that a nice shampoo might improve their mood.
In any case, it was palpably clear that their moment of intense belonging - that glad political date that lends meaning to the ennuied lives of the chat-room generation - was beginning to fade along with Dean's lights. It's not personal, I wanted to say. C'est la fame.