GOP White House hopefuls storming South Carolina

Republican presidential politics is hitting South Carolina much earlier this cycle than it did last time around, with possible contenders already canvassing GOP strongholds, attending fundraisers and organizing networks of paid staff and volunteers.

Republican presidential politics is hitting South Carolina much earlier this cycle than it did last time around, with possible contenders already canvassing GOP strongholds, attending fundraisers and organizing networks of paid staff and volunteers.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts have been the most aggressive, said GOP consultant Terry Sullivan, who engineered Republican Jim DeMint’s successful 2004 Senate campaign in the state.

Sen. George Allen (Va.) and Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas have also visited the state many times, although Allen must now concentrate on his 2006 reelection, GOP officials added. James Webb, secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, recently announced he would run as a Democrat against Allen, who is seeking a second term.

“The presidential welcome mat is out,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said, noting that the fact that the race for the White House is wide open has generated a great deal of early buzz.

Back in 1998, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush waited until the midterm elections to take his first campaign trip to South Carolina, Dawson and other South Carolina Republicans said.

Now, with nine months to go before the midterms, Romney and Huckabee are already hitting GOP events in the Republican strongholds of Spartanburg and Greenville counties, and McCain and Allen are working behind the scenes to build support.

Romney, in particular, party officials and consultants said, has aggressively courted grassroots activists. One Republican operative attributed this to Romney’s concern that he has yet to overcome “the Massachusetts factor” and Southerners’ distaste for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

“Not that we’re leery of them,” he said of Massachusetts candidates, “but we are.”

Romney has also ramped up his involvement in local elections, Dawson and Sullivan said.

In 2004, Sullivan said, Romney gave between $40,000 and $50,000 to Republicans running for the state House and in other races in South Carolina.

This year, Sullivan said, “he’s turned around and given money to the party … and they’re looking for a full-time person down here just to hand out checks.”

There will be plenty of opportunity in 2006 for Romney, or anyone else for that matter, to contribute to Republican candidates — and, presumably, pay for their support in the upcoming presidential primary.

Many seats are up for election in the state House of Representatives, although Republicans enjoy a supermajority in that legislative body. And Republicans have mounted competitive bids to knock off the two Democrats who hold statewide office.

Also, the entire GOP establishment, including Gov. Mark Sanford and Sens. Lindsey Graham and DeMint, have rallied around Republican state Sen. Ralph Norman’s bid to unseat Rep. John Spratt (D) in the 5th District.

PACs run by Romney and by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) have contributed to the Norman campaign. Allen is scheduled to attend a Norman event in March while Huckabee is planning to attend an event in 5th District for the local Republican committee.

Norman’s campaign manager, Nathan Hollifield, said, “We’re very lucky to be running in a year that these types of folks are willing to come down and help a conservative Republican get elected.”

Hollifield said he would welcome it if Spratt started stumping with Democratic Party leaders in the mostly rural district, stretching from the north-central part of the state to Sumter and Florence to the south and east.

“I would love for him to bring down Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.] and Howard Dean,” Hollifield said, referring to the House minority leader and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “I’d even be willing to pay.”

Romney and McCain have also sought to secure some of the state’s most prized political talent. Both campaigns have approached Sullivan and his partners, Warren Tompkins and Heath Thompson, about working for them.

Sullivan declined to comment on job proposals, but he did say that Tompkins Thompson & Sullivan, headquartered in the state capital, Columbia, would be signing up with a campaign at some point down the road.

McCain has avoided high-profile events but has tapped into Graham’s network of supporters as he begins to assemble his 2008 campaign, the Republican operative said.

The senator backed McCain in 2000, against George W. Bush, and has said he would do so again in 2008, should McCain, 69, run again.

Richard Quinn, who worked for McCain’s campaign in 2000 and serves as Graham’s pollster and consultant, is helping McCain reach out to state Republican lawmakers, the operative added.

The one possible presidential contender who has not been seen much on the campaign trail is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, GOP officials said. In the past six months, Giuliani has visited South Carolina once, said his spokeswoman, Sunny Mindel. Other than seven visits to Florida in that period, Giuliani largely appears to have steered clear of the South.