GREENVILLE, S.C. — In the first two presidential states, the GOP picture is clear enough: Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann top the polls in Iowa and Romney is the candidate to beat in New Hampshire.Read the rest here.
As for South Carolina, the other critical early state, it’s anybody’s guess.
The first-in-the-South primary couldn’t be any more unsettled. By this point in the 2008 campaign, the Republican contenders had the state’s top consultants locked up, expansive staffs on the ground, and extensive rosters of endorsements. Voters had already been inundated with TV ads. A variety of pollsters had been in the field for months.
This time around? Crickets.
There’s been very little polling, no ads have been aired, and the campaigns are barely staffed up. Just one of the state’s top consultants — who play a unique and exaggerated role in Columbia’s political culture — has signed up with a major candidate. A Fox News debate in May turned out to be a dud, since most of the best-known presidential prospects skipped it.
And almost all of the state’s key endorsements — Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Jim DeMint, almost all of the state’s congressmen, most of its state lawmakers — are still sitting on the sidelines.
If that doesn’t sound like the South Carolina of GOP primary lore, that’s because it isn’t.
In four short years, the Republican scene here has been dramatically reordered, leaving the state’s political class and the GOP field uncertain about the South Carolina electorate—and what kind of candidate is best suited for it.
In just the last election cycle alone, the state has emerged as one of the nation’s tea party’s strongholds, electing a conservative African-American to Congress in Charleston, ousting an insufficiently conservative GOP House incumbent Upstate and putting a female Indian-American in the governor’s office.
“It’s wide open — and there’s a big question mark about [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry getting in, among the infrastructure types and the activists,” said Katon Dawson, a former state GOP chairman.
DeMint, a tea party standard bearer who endorsed Romney last time around in January 2007 , has spent the early primary months calling his state’s congressmen, big donors and state legislators to explicitly ask them to wait until after Labor Day to pick a candidate. DeMint’s supporters are privately calling themselves the “Keep Your Powder Dry” caucus as they organize a candidate forum scheduled for Labor Day weekend.