S.C. GOP Chair Says Electability Is Key

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, right, listens as South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson announces Jan. 19, 2008 as the date of his state's Republican presidential primary at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007. Dawson made the announcement with officials from New Hampshire, whom he called allies in protecting the traditional early states' voting order.
AP Photo
Political Players is a weekly conversation with the leaders, consultants, and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican chairman, about this Saturday's GOP primary, and what his state's voters want in a presidential candidate.

CBSNews.com: Governor Romney is back on the air now in South Carolina after suspending his ad campaign following his second place finish in New Hampshire. How hurtful do you think that break was for his campaign?

Katon Dawson: I think that with as many undecided voters as there are right now, certainly you don't like to go down in your political media. But there are a lot of undecideds out there in this race, and it's up for grabs in South Carolina. So we will find out how well the strategy played. But Government Romney has got a strong team here, a strong presence here, for a little over a year.

CBSNews.com: Do you think that his Mormon religion has hurt him among evangelical voters--who account for as much as 50% of the GOP vote there?

Katon Dawson: My opinion would be voters are looking for an entire package, not just one issue to disqualify you. But certainly Governor Romney has values that are very consistent with evangelical voters, and has run a good campaign here.

I always think this lumping and grouping into any type of category is very dangerous in South Carolina because we are a very independent state with independent voters. If evangelicals all voted the same, Pat Robertson certainly would have won here [in 1988].

CBSNews.com: Senator McCain seems to be in a very strong position in South Carolina. He got 44 percent of the vote in 2000. He's either tied for the lead or in the lead in most of the polls. What does he have to do between now and Saturday?

Katon Dawson: I think Senator McCain certainly has had a good campaign staff in South Carolina the entire time. He is a war hero, and recognized for that. He has stuck to his message, and was right about the surge and where we are in the war on terror. And the voters, I think, are rewarding him with their favor right now for being very consistent with his message.

With that being said, there are more people in the race than there were in 2000. 2000 was basically limited to George Bush and John McCain. Right now you have got lots of very well-qualified candidates.

CBSNews.com: McCain, very famously, came back to South Carolina after the 2000 primary and apologized for going with his political advisers rather than his instincts on the Confederate flag. Do you think his position now--that the flag should be taken down--will hurt him at all?

Katon Dawson: I think that issue's behind everybody in South Carolina. I do. At least I hope it is. And we've resolved it, and certainly to some people's dissatisfaction. But this race is bigger than one issue.

Electability is huge. People want to know who could take the fight to the Democrats and retain the White House. I cannot tell you who that is right now.

CBSNews.com: Of the two leading Democrats, who do you think would be tougher to beat in a general election? South Carolina is pretty fertile territory for the Republicans, but nationally?

Katon Dawson: I think it is tough to tell you right now. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. I think the thing that I am the most encouraged about is the philosophical differences in the parties, to me, have never been as wide as they are right now. The Democrats are out front about raising taxes, socialized healthcare, weakness in the war on terror. And the Republicans are opposite on all those issues. I think you are going to see a striking difference in the candidates.