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.
The wild card here, as it is almost everywhere, is Sarah Palin. There's no doubt that McCain's selection of Palin energized Republicans who were unhappy with his candidacy. "There will be a lot of carry-over from that going into the next cycle," says Oran Smith, head of the Palmetto Family Council, which is South Carolina's version of the socially conservative Family Research Council.
But not with everyone -- and not even with all of the state's social conservatives. "There are a lot of folks who really, really like her," Smith says. "But there are others who think she's fine, but ask, 'Who else do we have?'" When I suggest to Smith that he sounds somewhat equivocal, he says, "Personally, not speaking for the organization, I am a little equivocal. I'm not sure if she is the perfect match for a nominee for president."
Among those who see themselves more as economic and national-defense conservatives, the doubts are stronger. At a recent focus group (well, actually it was a lunch) with six University of South Carolina Law School students -- all conservative, all politically active -- there was a consensus against Palin. The students had been enthusiastic when she was first picked for the 2008 ticket. They were wowed when she addressed the Republican National Convention. And then it was downhill from there. They believe Palin shares their conservative instincts, but that she's just not up to the job.
Of course, there's always the possibility that South Carolinians will break their pattern and go with someone new. If Romney, Huckabee and Palin all fail to turn on the voters, that could open the way for Tim Pawlenty (who hasn't been here recently), or Thune, or some complete stranger. Whatever happens, the road to the nomination in this key GOP state is wide-open -- and very likely bumpy.