GOP chairman sells idea of S. Carolina as first primary

Associated Press

COLUMBIA - The South Carolina man who put the presidential primary calendar into upheaval makes his living selling spark plugs and mufflers.


Katon Dawson, the chairman of the state's Republican Party, is an auto parts distributor whose career in politics dates to a 1964 Barry Goldwater speech he attended wearing his Cub Scout uniform.

"I remembered I wanted to be part of that excitement from that day forward," Mr. Dawson said.

One of the highlights of his political career came Thursday, when he announced in New Hampshire that South Carolina would hold its GOP presidential primary Jan. 19 in order to retain its first-in-the-South status, forcing New Hampshire to move its first-in-the-nation primary and Iowa to move its caucus.

The move ensures that South Carolina will continue to attract national attention as a launching pad for presidential candidates. The state has successfully picked the GOP presidential nominee since 1980, when Ronald Reagan was a surprise winner in the state. "We needed to make sure South Carolina and the activists who do the yard signs and the bumper stickers aren't left behind," Mr. Dawson said. "We're important to conservatives all across the country."

But the 51-year-old, whose volunteer days started with Richard Nixon in 1968, remembers when Republicans were nearly nonexistent in South Carolina.

His parents helped organize the state's first GOP precincts. At age 8, he proudly wore a Goldwater campaign pin, despite being bullied for it.

The grandson of a welder and farmer, Mr. Dawson took over his dad's auto-parts business 17 years ago and expanded it despite the pressure of national chains. His Republican friends cite that small-business background and down-to-earth attitude as key to his success as GOP chairman.

"This guy's an auto-parts salesman. He knows the real world," said Tucker Eskew, a former spokesman for President Bush and the late Gov. Carroll Campbell who backed Mr. Dawson's campaign for chairman.

Former state Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said that though he and Mr. Dawson were antagonists, "I've got nothing but admiration for him. I give him huge credit for playing with the big boys and moving the primary up."

Mr. Dawson, a University of South Carolina graduate, is quick to point out that he never took a single political science class. But he has great political instincts and "pure old good leadership skills," said U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, a former South Carolina House speaker.

In 2000, Mr. Dawson put more than 60,000 miles on his car as he campaigned unsuccessfully for state GOP chairman. Two years later, he won the job, which draws no salary.

"Katon's got a lot of energy and determination. He won't quit," said Attorney General Henry McMaster, Mr. Dawson's 2000 opponent.

Republican leaders also praise his fundraising skills.

At age 6, he was running a bicycle shop in his yard. He would outfit bikes with high handlebars, tassels and banana seats. Kids who paid for all three got a noisemaker for free. By 14, he was working in his father's store.

"I was raised to sell stuff," he said.

When he became state GOP chairman, the party was deep in debt. He asked friends and neighbors for money so often, he said, that one day he went into a restaurant and a friend moved two seats down to avoid him.

"Then all of a sudden we struck gold," Mr. Dawson said, referring to the election of Lindsey Graham to replace the retiring U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and former U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford's defeat of Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges.

Walter Whetsell, the president of Starboard Communications, a political consulting and direct-mail firm, said Mr. Dawson has elevated the profile of state GOP chairman.

"You can't have a conversation with him about Republican Party politics and not walk away thinking Republicans are going to control the world," he said.


AGE: 51

HOMETOWN: Columbia

CAREER: President and general manager of Burns Auto Parts and Supply Inc.

POLITICS: Volunteer for political campaigns since Richard Nixon's run in 1968; Richland County Republican Party vice chairman, 1994; ran unsuccessfully for state Senate, 1996; ran unsuccessfully for state GOP chairman, 2000; elected state GOP chairman, 2002

FAMILY: Wife, Candy; two children, Katon Jr., 20, and Anna, 22