ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Georgia Republicans found themselves face-to-face with three presidential hopefuls on Friday — and more are on the way, giving the state GOP hope that a new standard in presidential politics awaits as Southern states build a regional primary for 2016.
"It's putting us on the map," said Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, architect of what's being dubbed the "SEC primary," a reference to college athletics' Southeastern Conference.
The Republican National Committee allows states to vote in caucuses or primaries as early as March 1, after the first four: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. So far, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have plans for that date. Alabama appears poised to join, and some Arkansas Republicans also support a March 1 date. North Carolina could end up close behind on March 8.
With a GOP field replete with established, well-financed politicians — to say nothing of super PACs that ensure tens of millions of dollars more — the second wave of primary states appears to have a genuine say in selecting a nominee and not merely follow the trend set by the early voting states.
Georgia has long been a source for presidential campaign money, mostly because of tremendous corporate and personal wealth in metro Atlanta. In 2012, the state generated $33 million in direct contributions to candidates, according to the Federal Elections Commission. But now, said Leo Smith, the state GOP's minority engagement director, "we can actually influence national policy because these guys are coming to talk to us, to hear what we have to say."
What New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had to say Friday wasn't as important to many locals as the fact that they showed up for the Georgia Republican Convention.
Christie, who says he'll announce his 2016 plans in early summer, told about 350 people at a breakfast, "You'll be seeing a lot of people." He lingered afterward for hugs and photos, including from delegates wearing stickers for other candidates.
Rubio, an official candidate, delivered to the full convention the same extended pitch he's offered in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters have long rubbed shoulders with would-be presidents. Rubio told The Associated Press before his remarks that he hadn't thought much about the primary calendar, saying he leaves strategy "to the professionals on our campaign."
But once on stage, Rubio beamed: "I'm looking forward to the SEC primary. You should be excited."
Soon after, a hoard of delegates crowded the hallway outside the room where Cruz sat for interviews with local reporters.
"It shouldn't just be Iowa and New Hampshire who get to do this," said Cynthia Cook of Newton County, about an hour's drive east of Atlanta. "Everyone should get a voice. ... That's how we come up with the best candidate."
Nearby, volunteers manned tables for other candidates — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has not announced a bid, is scheduled to be in the state later this month. And multiple candidates, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are scheduled in early August to attend the conservative RedState Gathering in Atlanta. The event, sponsored by influential conservative media personality Erick Erickson, overlaps with the Iowa straw poll, once a seminal happening in presidential nominations.
"They're choosing us over Iowa," Kemp said.
Many vocal conservatives in the party hail the trend. Huckabee, who won Georgia and several other Southern states in his failed 2008 bid, called the idea a "godsend." Cruz said Friday that it can help ensure "that the party nominates a conservative," not "someone in the mold of Bob Dole ... or Mitt Romney."
On that point, even Georgia Democrats agreed, with Chairman DuBose Porter using the convention as an opportunity to cast the GOP's primary field as "out of touch" with the mainstream.
"The clown car just rolled into town," Porter said.
Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.