CHARLESTON, S.C. — You know-it-alls who think unemployment is the most urgent crisis facing the nation are wrong, I’ve learned from watching a zillion Republican campaign ads on television this week. All you deficit hawks, rise-of-China worrywarts and alarmed observers of the Iranian nuclear program are wrong, too, and should stop bothering yourselves with trifles.

One of Mitt Romney’s spots ends by laying out the nation’s top priority in no uncertain terms. Voters should support Romney, the narrator says, because “beating Obama is the most important issue.”

Am I the only one to find that weird? I understand why trying to engineer President Obama’s defeat would be an urgent priority for Romney, who wants to move his family into the White House, but why should it be more important to voters than, say, boosting the economy or reducing the debt? Why shouldn’t the focus be on policies and results?

All right, I know how naive this sounds. I’m fully aware of the political calculation: Politics is about winning, and the best way for a Republican to win this year is to make Obama the issue. All the GOP contenders, to varying degrees, have sought to demonize the president.

And it’s true that the four remaining candidates are spending just as much time and money trying to demonize one another. Romney is portrayed as a mushy, flip-flopping moderate in disguise, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as business-as-usual Washington insiders, Ron Paul as a nutty crackpot. Whoever emerges as the nominee, Republicans have already done a lot of the Obama campaign’s work.

(I don’t think I saw a single ad attacking Rick Perry, who quit the race on Thursday.)

I’m also aware that electability has become a major selling point for voters here, perhaps even more important than credentials as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Especially for Romney — whose record as Massachusetts governor is enough to make many South Carolina Republicans faint dead away — sticking with the “I can beat Obama” line may be the only viable choice.

Still, there’s a nasty edge to the discourse here. It’s striking that in a state where unemployment is at 9.9 percent, the last message Romney decides to send voters before the primary is not “jobs” or “growth” — but rather, “We’ve got to get rid of this guy.”

From the sound of it, this whole thing isn’t political. It’s personal.

The candidates go back and forth across the state, exhorting voters to “take the country back,” and I wonder: Take it back from whom? Did somebody stage a coup, or maybe a heist? Who’s in possession of this country of yours? And what makes it yours, not theirs?

Romney and Gingrich, especially, have taken pains to create the impression that there is something alien and illegitimate about the Obama presidency. They portray Obama not as a political opponent but as a usurper.

Gingrich has been shamelessly beating this drum for a long time. Remember his bizarre allegation that “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior” was somehow the key to understanding what Obama was trying to accomplish? That turned out to be just the beginning. At practically every opportunity, he rails about how Obama is a “food stamp president.”

At Monday’s debate in Myrtle Beach, Gingrich doubled down on his language characterizing poor people as lazy and ignorant, then practically dared anyone to accuse him of race-baiting. He should consider himself accused.

Romney’s approach, however, is more subtle. On Monday, he made the pitch that Obama had to be replaced right now, because if he remains in office for four more years, the country will be transformed into “something we wouldn’t recognize.” Bingo.

The Obama administration, to state the obvious, doesn’t look like any of its predecessors. In its diversity, however, it does look a lot like the nation.

When I was growing up in South Carolina, the political leadership of South Carolina was all white and all male, and the Confederate flag flew proudly above the statehouse in Columbia. On Wednesday night, Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent, gave the annual State of the State address; when she finished, state Rep. Bakari Sellers, who is African-American, gave the opposition’s response.

From the evidence, voters here have more capacity for dealing with change than the Republican candidates seem to think.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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