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Gary Younge
South Carolina wants its candidates to be on right track

Driving down from the hills of upstate to the low country of Hilton Head you get a good glimpse of just about every topography South Carolina has to offer. Over the last few days the main candidates have been up in Michigan, leaving the Palmetto state to Fred Thompson, who seems to be making his last stand here. But tomorrow the circus arrives in full for a final push in the first southern race.

Romney's victory in Michigan makes the outcome of South Carolina's primary even tougher to call. Immigration is the big issue here. But relatively few of the main contenders particularly endear themselves to the blatantly nativist and xenophobic sentiments that you hear among most Republican supporters.

On the way down I stopped in Dorchester county and spoke to Kendra Linkowski, a minuteman (a female minuteman is still a minuteman it seems). Dorchester is 1,440 miles from the nearest border crossing with Mexico at Brownsville, but nowadays it seems as though the border is everywhere. Dorchester has passed an ordnance prohibiting employers from taking on undocumented labourers. Kendra says it has done no good. She believes that illegal immigrants bring disease, drive down wages, smuggle drugs and people and pose the threat of terrorism. Kendra is angry at the failure of the federal government to protect its citizens and believes that the US is under serious existential threat. Actually Kendra is angry about quite a lot of things, ranging from "illegals", muslims, the Chinese economy and even Chinese terrorists.

Immigration seems like yet another issue where Republicans have struggled to meet the demands of their base. The grassroots want action but the candidates either offer them solutions they don't like (McCain, Huckabee, Giuliani) or that are unrealistic (Romney, Thompson). The bloodletting won't stop here. If anything, given the nature of South Carolina politics, things could get a whole lot messier.

Early the next morning, down on Hilton Head Island, around 30 Latino men wait at dawn for contractors to pick them up. Those who remain get an English lesson from a volunteer at the Latin American Council of South Carolina. Hilton Head is a swanky retirement and tourist area clearly desperate for the kind of low-paid, low-skilled labour that migrants provide. After 20 minutes a portly American came to get a man to do his garden, claiming Americans were getting "fat and lazy" and charge too much.

The Latin American Council's executive director, Luis Bell, says that it's difficult to find serious solutions to the issues confronting immigrants while the political rhetoric remains so heated, but hopes that it will soon blow over after the election. He understands local concerns. When he arrived in the area 20 years ago he there were 4 or five immigrant families. Now, he says, there are thousands.

Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head, recently passed a similar ordnance to the one in Dorchester. It came into effect two weeks ago, and council chairman Weston Newton said they had little choice but to do what the federal government would not. In practice however, what these local ordnances prove is the futility of any kind of local solution to what is essentially a global problem. So long as capital can roam freely around the world so will labour. Build a fence and they will build a bigger ladder. Aware that they cannot deport tens of millions of people, the aim now is to make the conditions for undocumented labourers so unpleasant that they will "self-deport". The trouble is the people driving this debate are out of touch with the mainstream. Immigration may be the biggest issue but Tom Tancredo, the most fervent anti-immigrant candidate, is out of the race, and Duncan Hunter, who comes a close second, might as well be. With immigration, just like with the election, Republicans seem to have a better idea of what they don't like than what they do.

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