Forget running against President Barack Obama. Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer wants to make the GOP's June 8 primary for governor a referendum on the state's poor.
Bauer and his supporters say his recent comments - comparing the poor to "stray animals" in January and calling some "flat-out lazy" last month - simply express his deeply held convictions about the value of hard work.
His critics, however, say Bauer is running a campaign that Lee Atwater - the legendary, divisive S.C. Republican operative - would appreciate.
Their concern? Bauer is running in the Republican primary, an overwhelmingly white affair, and, in South Carolina's political discourse, "poor" is often code for "black." So by ripping the poor, critics say, Bauer really is cheer-leading for minority bashing.
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Bauer's comments have some fuming. Fortunately for Bauer, most are Democrats.
His rivals for the GOP's nomination for governor - U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster, state Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington and S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia - are more intent on turning their primary into a referendum on who is most anti-Obama.
As a result, Bauer's comments about the poor make him stand out.
And they also make him a target.
"He ... has no idea what it's like to be denied anything," says state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Richland, who owns a Columbia salvage yard business and is a past chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. "People like that, whom the privilege of white skin will always afford an advantage, think all you have to do is be willing to work.
"It's not always that way."
'THEY KNOW WHERE MY HEART IS'
If his comments are not popular with Democrats, Bauer is not terribly popular with his party's establishment leaders either.
Last weekend, Bauer finished fourth in the straw poll at the state GOP's annual convention.
Bauer says he regrets the remarks he made in January at an Upstate town hall meeting, comparing people who get government aid to stray animals.
However, during a debate in the conservative-leaning Upstate late last month, Bauer returned to the same theme, saying the nation's immigration problem is due to the poor.
"The real problem is the work force," Bauer said. "The problem is we have a giveaway system that is so strong that people would rather sit home and do nothing than do these jobs.
"There are a lot of people that are flat-out lazy, and they are using up the goods and services in this state," Bauer said.
Howard and others say, considering the firestorm his January comments produced, Bauer's return to the subject must be calculated.
"They know the dynamics of this state," said Howard.
Bauer categorically denies any racial intent.
Instead, he talked about a recent invitation that he received from a black pastor in Inman, who turned over his church's pulpit to the two-term, 41-year-old lieutenant governor.
The Rev. Amos Durham said he is concerned about the falling number of African-Americans who enter college. Neither black churches nor black parents are doing enough to get kids straight, he added. "We talk about these things among ourselves, but we don't talk about them in public."
Bauer, in his typical constituent-service style of politicking, greeted each church member, Durham said, adding that impressed him.
"It was not a campaign speech," Durham said of Bauer's comments.
Bauer said his comments are not coded attacks on black and brown people.
"It has nothing to do with race. There are more white people on welfare than black people," Bauer said.
(Nationwide, one in six Americans lives in poverty; one in four black Americans lives in poverty.)
Added Bauer, "I've got more minorities, than any other Republican, who support me. They know where my heart is."
'THIS ISN'T SOME NEW TACTIC'
Bauer says his comments are not a new strategy to get votes.
"I've been talking about this for several years. This isn't some new (campaign) tactic," he said.
Instead, now that he's running for governor, more people are taking note of his long-held stance on welfare, he said.
Bauer said his message resonates with working people of all colors.
"Government continues to discourage hard work. The average working person is fed up with it. We're running out of people to pay for these (welfare) programs," Bauer said.
"I philosophically believe that government's role is not to take care of everybody. As long as you have giveaway programs that are as good as what you get doing a job, people won't choose the jobs."
Bauer said he blames the system, not welfare recipients.
"We're not showing them any other way to live. We're not empowering anybody," he said.
'ACT TOUGH BY PICKING ON PEOPLE'
It's difficult to pin down Bauer on how he defines welfare. He said it does not include people who get Social Security, disability checks or unemployment checks.
But experts say Bauer's claims of a lazy underclass draining the state of its economic vitality largely are hokum.
The state's primary welfare program rolls are less than half the number they were before federal welfare reform in 1996, according to the state Department of Social Services, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps, and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, created to get people off federal assistance and back to work.
However, use of the temporary assistance program is up by 46 percent since 2007, and use of the food program is up by 31 percent.
State officials say those spikes reflect the severity of the Great Recession, just now starting to yield to early signs of recovery.
And Bauer's comments?
Par for the course, says independent filmmaker Stefan Forbes, who produced and directed the highly acclaimed movie about Atwater, "Boogie Man," two years ago.
Forbes says S.C. politicians often have found it useful to deflect voters' anger over a bad economy onto black people, in particular. "It is easy for politicians to act tough by picking on people on the lower rungs of society," Forbes said.
"Why don't they get tough on corporations that subject workers to hazardous conditions, avoid paying taxes and export jobs overseas? Corporate welfare is a much greater threat to America than any other form of welfare."
'I LIKE ANDRE. BUT ...'
Earlier this year, the Legislative Black Caucus considered publicly censuring Bauer for his "stray animals" comments.
Ultimately, the caucus decided against the move, wary of giving Bauer more attention, said Rep. Joe Neal, R-Richland.
"I like Andre," Neal said. "He is one of the most engaging people in the Legislature. But I am very disappointed in the approach he has taken in this campaign."
That approach included hiring Chip Saltzman, a political consultant who distributed a racial parody of Obama. Saltzman made headlines last year when he withdrew from the race to run the national Republican Party after distributing a compact disc to supporters that included a racially tinged parody about Obama, "Barack the Magic Negro," a riff on the folk song "Puff the Magic Dragon."
Rep. Neal said Bauer ignores the fact that most people are not unemployed by choice, nor enraptured by the government. But, he adds, a bright spot has been that the other three Republican gubernatorial candidates have not taken Bauer's cue and followed suit.
Others are less sanguine.
"Andre is running like he wants to bring back Nazism," said state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston, a Democratic candidate for governor. "He's going straight to the gutter."
Ford wonders: Why?
"He goes to Burger King just like we do, and he sees all those old women in there working hard every day, and those women are proud as hell," Ford said.
'IT'S UP TO PRIMARY VOTERS TO DECIDE'
While Democrats heap criticisms on Bauer, the state GOP is hesitant to weigh in.
"All of the candidates are taking a different tack, and it's up to primary voters to decide who they agree with," said Joel Sawyer, interim executive director of the S.C. Republican Party.
Sawyer said the GOP is working hard to build bridges with minorities.
"Traditionally, the Republican Party has not done well among black voters," he said. "We think it's important to get our message out to all voters, to let everyone know that we're the party of individual empowerment. You keep more of your own money. You make more of your own decisions rather than deferring to government to do it for you."