COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina is a lovely place, and its attractions bring thousands of tourists each year, but lately it has been getting a special class of visitor.
Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator who harbors presidential ambitions, has been here in recent weeks. So has Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican whose name is sometimes whispered by the Great Mentioner. Mike Huckabee, former GOP presidential candidate and current talk-show host, is coming soon. And so is Haley Barbour, the Mississippi governor who many would like to make a run for the White House.
They're not coming to play golf. Two years before South Carolina's first-in-the-South presidential primary -- a key test in any GOP race -- possible contenders are roaming around, forging relationships that will prove valuable if they decide to run. And they're going to test the question of whether South Carolina's Republicans will welcome a new breed of candidate.
In the past, the state's voters have favored candidates they know, mostly from previous campaigns. "The history of South Carolina has always been to look for a repeat guy," says David Woodard, professor of political science at Clemson University. For example, in 1988, Bob Dole lost the GOP race to George H.W. Bush, but the next time an open contest came around, in 1996, the state went to Dole. In 2000, South Carolina went to George W. Bush over John McCain, in part because of the connection to Bush's father. But then, in 2008, the state chose the familiar McCain. This time, Woodard expects a winner with a link to the past. "If it's somebody who hasn't run before, they're going to have a hard sell," he says.
That's good news for Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who ran here in 2008. Romney hasn't been around much -- by this time in 2006, he was getting pretty familiar -- but local politicos expect to see him after his new book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness," comes out in early March.
Another boost for Romney could be Sen. Jim DeMint, who endorsed the former Massachusetts governor in 2008. DeMint's increasingly prominent role in opposing the policies of the Obama administration has made him "incredibly popular" here in South Carolina, in the words of one conservative activist. That popularity could make DeMint a power broker, or even a contender for the national ticket. If DeMint goes with Romney again, it could be a very big deal -- especially since Romney has never excited the state's voters.