The road to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination may wind through a downtown Charleston room where a few hundred people hear the candidates talk briefly and then decide for themselves who is right for the job.
The Charleston Meeting -- a new invitation only, off-the-record gathering of conservatives from South Carolina and beyond -- isn't being formed only for that contest.
Instead, organizers hope they can move the needle on all sorts of national and state policy issues of interest to conservatives.
One founding member, retired Major Gen. James E. Livingston, said he hopes the meeting can cut through what he calls the masquerade of current politics.
"The format we're talking about is exactly what started this country," Livingston said. "This is the Founding Fathers format."
The gathering is neither a secret society nor a social affair -- water is the strongest beverage served. It's patterned after the Monday Meeting, which businessmen Mallory Factor and James Higgins established in New York shortly after 9/11.
Factor, who moved to Charleston in 2006, said those meetings have included several hundred elected officials, business and civic leaders, prominent political activists, authors, journalists, political strategists and high-profile candidates. He said the Charleston Meeting will strive for a similar mix.
Each meeting will feature several speakers, each of whom will have about five to eight minutes to make their case before fielding questions.
"We will have impact on legislation, approaches," Factor said. "We will have impact on leaders as far as who they support, just by the fact they are participating in these meetings. Impact is key."
Andrew Boucher, a founder, consultant and former director of the New Hampshire GOP, said he and his fellow organizers hope the Charleston Meeting gains a national reach and regularly attracts participants and speakers outside the state.
"The name is the Charleston Meeting," he said, "but we're building the premier national meeting of the center-right coalition."
Another founding member, Michael S. Smith II, works for a nonprofit research institute involved in terror-related analysis. He attended his first Monday Meeting a year ago and was impressed enough to want to establish something similar here.
"There's a tremendous level of gravitas in the audience itself," he said. "If the Charleston Meeting is ever elevated to that profile, I'll be shocked."
"It will be," Factor replied.
Smith said that too often, elected officials and candidates are seen as quasi celebrities who aren't accessible. "We really want to reduce that as much as we can," he said.
Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor, said the meeting's influence will hinge on how well it's able to fold policy makers into its rolling discussions.
"To the degree that it does, it could have an influence," he said. "It really depends on how active they are in recruiting."
The Charleston Meeting began Dec. 6 inside the French Quarter Inn, with seven speakers, including Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis, and S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen. About 100 people were in the audience, Smith said.
Its next meeting is today. The list of speakers and invitees is confidential.
Factor said the meeting's advantage is that those who attend have a chance to press officials and to mingle with them.
The invitation list is gradually expanding to include additional members of the center-right who might have an interest -- and influence.
"We're not trying to exclude people, but there are only so many people who can come before it turns into Madison Square Garden," Factor said, "and we're trying to make sure there aren't heckler types who are there who are posturing on their own part -- or breaking the rules where it's off the record."
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