Since 1980, South Carolina has held an exalted place as the “Gateway to Dixie” in that quadrennial marathon that begins with the Iowa caucuses and ends at the White House.

In that year, South Carolina native son and GOP strategist Lee Atwater persuaded the state Republican Party executive committee to pull South Carolina out of the nine-state Big South primary and hold the state GOP primary on the Saturday before the Big South. The thinking was that South Carolina would be the bellwether for Dixie and show other white Southerners how to vote.

That year, Reagan won a landslide in South Carolina, swept through the Big South primaries three days later and was on his way to the White House. The Palmetto State has held the second GOP primary in the nation ever since, and no Republican has won his party’s presidential nomination without first winning in South Carolina.

This has given South Carolina a special relationship with the presidency. Ronald Reagan, George Bush I, and George Bush II have all felt beholden to the state and have shown their appreciation by making numerous trips here during their White House incumbency. The state GOP has used the attention as a party-building tool, turning this into one of the most staunchly Republican states in the nation.

Each four years this little state, with its historic inferiority complex and its memories of lost grandeur, becomes the center of the universe, as Republican candidates swarm in like locusts and the national media follow. For white South Carolinians, it’s been the greatest surge of testosterone since that memorable morning in 1861 when those shots were fired on Fort Sumter.

Now all that glory may soon be over. The Republican Party of Michigan announced last week that it wants to schedule its presidential primary to take place on the same day as South Carolina’s. We would have to share the political visitations and the media spotlight with a much larger state.

This should give every South Carolinian — indeed, every American — occasion to ponder the awesome power that has been placed in the hands of the white population of this little state.

Anyone who has read John Brody’s Bad Boy — The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater knows that Atwater was a restless and tortured soul, who epitomized this restless and tortured state. And his bare-knuckled, hit-and-run, smear-and-innuendo style of politics could be said to epitomize the politics of this state.

More than creating the early primary in South Carolina, Atwater’s most important political tactic was bringing Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, with their sexually obsessed “family values,” into the fold of mainstream Republican politics. It took a diabolical genius to make allies of the likes of Bob Jones III and Rupert Murdoch, but the strange alliance has held for a quarter century and has transformed America’s politics, government, and national priorities.

And it gave us George W. Bush.

Think back to that February in 2000. In a stunning upset, Sen. John McCain defeated Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary. One more defeat and Bush’s presidential campaign would be over.

Within 12 hours after the votes were tallied in New Hampshire, Bush was on the campus of Bob Jones University in Greenville, reminding right-wing Christians that he was one of them, a born-again, ready to take on abortion and gay rights, ready to fight for prayer in public schools.

Before white Republican voters went to the polls the next Tuesday, they started receiving mysterious phone calls: Were they aware that Sen. McCain’s wife was a drug addict? Were they aware that the senator was mentally unstable as a result of his seven-year incarceration as a POW in North Vietnam? Were they aware that the senator had an illegitimate black daughter? All the insinuations were false (and the last one bitterly ironic, in light of later revelations about the late Strom Thurmond), but they derailed McCain’s candidacy in South Carolina and sent Bush to the White House.

Now we have a president who wallows with the Christian fundies, who does not believe in evolution or global warming, who opposes stem cell research, who makes war promiscuously, who wiretaps illegally, and who turns our natural resources over to the corporate robber barons. And to look at the bumper stickers around this town, the white people of South Carolina probably would do it over again, if they had the chance.

George W. Bush is their gift to America.

It was a cruel trick of fate that transformed the most politically and socially dysfunctional state in America into the national king maker.

Michigan’s decision to challenge our presidential primary with their own means that South Carolina will lose its moment in the spotlight. Thank God! Every time this state gets a little attention, it makes a fool of itself.