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Associated Press
Mitt Romney campaigns at the Florence Civic Center in Florence, S.C., on Tuesday.

SALT LAKE CITY — When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee challenged John McCain in South Carolina in 2008, he felt he had an advantage because he could "speak the language" of the Palmetto State.

His cultural connection was fried squirrel.

"When I was in college," he said to Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, "we used to take a popcorn popper, because that was the only thing they would let us use in the dorm, and we would fry squirrels in a popcorn popper in the dorm room." Like a secret handshake at the Masonic lodge, Huckabee thought squirrel would help him bond with the South Carolina voter in the GOP presidential primary.

South Carolina elections have long been known for signals to traditional voters, but the signals are sometimes less benign than fried squirrel. Current front-runner Mitt Romney got a taste of it during the 2008 cycle, when a Christmas card was sent to voters, supposedly from Romney, featuring controversial quotes from 19th century Mormon leaders. It was a classic South Carolina whisper campaign, designed to spark fears and prejudices among highly traditional voters.

In returning to South Carolina, Romney tries once more to capture a state that is slowly changing, but which still has much of its uniquely Southern idiosyncrasies, some of which are still tied to the Civil War. If he wins, as looks likely, he would have an infusion of newcomers to thank.

Bruce Ransom, a political scientist at Clemson University, says demographic change has been slower coming to South Carolina than it did in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. While the state has not experienced the job creation of North Carolina's Research Triangle or Georgia's Atlanta, South Carolina did finally get a new congressional district in 2010, driven mostly by incoming retirees.

Most of the newcomers are conservative, Ransom says, but they lack the "strong traditionalist values exhibited by native South Carolinians."

The birthplace of the Confederacy, insular South Carolina continued to symbolically refight the Civil War through much of the 20th century. Even as migrating Northerners softened the politics of Virginia, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, South Carolina remained an island trapped in time. This has recently begun to change, and 2010 marked a key moment, as the state elected a female governor of East Indian descent and the first black Republican congressman since Reconstruction.

But the legacy of the Civil War lingers, and some candidates cannot resist dabbling on the margins. In Charleston last Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told voters that the Obama administration was "at war" with their state and was trampling on their "sovereign" rights in several policy areas. When he paused, you could almost hear the cannon at Fort Sumter, just four miles away.

Perry's brief reference to state sovereignty was but a hint of the louder political storms that have long swirled, centered on a Confederate flag flying over South Carolina's Capitol grounds. The flag policy has provoked the NAACP to engineer a boycott of the state that has redirected more than one major basketball tournament elsewhere. The controversy began in 1962 when the state — as a pointed response to a rising civil rights movement — placed a Confederate flag atop the state Capitol below the U.S. flag and the official state flag. There it stayed until 2000, when the state compromised, placing it right next to the Capitol onto a 30-foot pole beside a monument to fallen Confederates.

This was supposed to end the matter, and in many minds it did. But the NAACP refused to budge, and visiting presidential candidates continue to be tempted to try to appeal to a certain kind of deeply Southern voter. In 2008, the affable Huckabee couldn't resist when he badly needed a win. He needed red meat, not just fried squirrel, and he knew McCain was vulnerable on the flag.

In 2000, McCain had called the flag a "symbol of racism and slavery," but then, deciding he wanted to win South Carolina in the worst way, he tried to do just that, calling it "a symbol of heritage." The reversal did him no good. He was trounced by Bush, who said all along that the matter was "up to the people of South Carolina." Afterward, McCain owned up: "I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary," adding that it was a "sacrifice of principle for personal ambition." In April of that year, the state finally moved the flag off the Capitol dome.

In 2008, McCain, relieved at the compromise and looking to bury a painful memory, declared that he was pleased that the state had taken the flag off the dome and considered the matter closed. But sensing weakness, Huckabee doubled down: "If someone came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell them what to do with the pole." This time it didn't work. In a sign that South Carolina politics were maturing, McCain narrowly beat Huckabee, a plurality of primary voters overlooking his awkward history on their touchy topic.

The 2008 win vindicated McCain, who had been battered in 2000 not just on the flag, but also with a vicious whisper campaign featuring thousands of calls to voters and radio shows. They claimed that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock, apparently trying to sow confusion about McCain's adopted Bengali daughter. The rumor is attributed by many to the Bush campaign, though Karl Rove vehemently denies it. Whoever did it knew that miscegenation was the old ace card of Southern racial fears.

The 2000 whisper campaign echoed another from 1980, when South Carolina native Lee Atwater helped Ronald Reagan defeat Texas Gov. John Connally by feeding the state's largest paper a ginned up story that Connally was paying black preachers to try to steal the election. The reporter, Lee Bandy, says Atwater later laughed about it, saying, "Lee, you got used."

Now, even as the population slowly changes, echoes of past elections still rumble. McCain's 2008 vindication and the landmark 2010 minority victories notwithstanding, the Confederate flag still flutters three stories above the Capitol grounds, the NAACP still boycotts, and traps for GOP candidates remain. This year, Mitt Romney has avoided commenting on the flag, though in 2008 he called it "divisive" and said it "should not be flown."

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich plays for desperate stakes, like Huckabee in 2008. Asked the inevitable question at a December town hall meeting in Columbia, S.C., Gingrich might have toed the official line by declaring the issue moot. Instead, he jumped in with enthusiasm: "I have a very strong opinion," he exclaimed: "It's up to the people of South Carolina!" Much of the crowd stood, applauded and yelled in approval.

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