COLUMBIA — For eight straight Republican presidential primaries, the rule in this state has been simple: Win or go home.
South Carolina has always been the GOP establishment's fire wall in presidential politics, where insurgents go to die, where the Empire strikes back, where the plucky candidate who enjoyed a brief breakout moment in the snows of New Hampshire or Iowa becomes a mere footnote in someone else's march to the nomination.
All that, however, was before the anti-establishment forces shredded the Republican Party's old playbook — and perhaps nowhere as noticeably as in this state, which hosts the first presidential debate in May and the 'first in the South' primary in February.
Nikki Haley, an Indian American, last year became the state's first woman or ethnic minority to be elected governor.
Haley beat better-known and better-financed opponents in a heated Republican primary even as she denied charges that she had had an affair with a conservative blogger.
That race proved that politics in South Carolina is still a muddy business. But it also seemed to prove that the established rules of engagement — hiring powerful consultants, scooping up big endorsements, raising gobs of cash, blanketing the airwaves with ads and mounting whispering campaigns — don't have the same power they once did.
'Any candidate that comes into South Carolina with any preconceived idea of how to win here will be in for a rude awakening,' Haley said in a recent interview.
Although the fervor that powered Haley to the governor's mansion remains, what has gone missing is a potential presidential candidate who appears able to harness it.
Sightings of potential front-runners, such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, have been scarce, while most of the newcomers are only just starting to tiptoe into the state.
'These candidates, it is their job to get people excited, it is their job to get people to care,' Haley said. 'We have not seen that yet in South Carolina.'
Activists and party leaders have been no more impressed.
'I've got problems with Romney because of Obamacare,' said activist Pat Ryan, 65, a retired nurse in Charleston. 'Palin is good as a thorn in the side but not presidential material. Gingrich is philosophical, learned, but I don't know if he can carry through. Huckabee has grown on me, but he is too conciliatory. But I can't believe that the choices out there are the only ones. There have to be some more people out there. It's going to take time to see who comes out of the woodwork.'
The one potential candidate who seems to have come out of the woodwork with some momentum is Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Fresh off the House floor and a debate over spending cuts, Bachmann was greeted at a recent event with raucous applause and several standing ovations during her 40-minute speech. Upstate Republicans, who tend be of the conservative Bob Jones University variety, were still buzzing about her at an event featuring fellow potential candidate Rick Santorum days later.
On one of his recent trips, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour told an audience that if the 2012 race is all about drawing contrasts, then there's nobody more different from Obama than he is. But Barbour's Bubba bona fides could actually work against him here, and in other Southern states, where the phrase 'thank God for Mississippi' isn't a compliment.
Gingrich, who announced in neighboring Georgia that he was exploring a run, will head to the Greenville County Republican Women's Club to speak this month.
Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, swung through on a book tour last week, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, absent from the state since last summer, made a return Wednesday.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has practically moved to South Carolina, the joke goes — he's made 11 trips over the past 18 months — and is the only one following the 'come early, come often' rule of South Carolina politics.
'Everybody has just about been here, doing a little courting, not asking anybody to go steady yet,' said Barry Wynn, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican party and the finance director of President George W. Bush's reelection campaign. 'People are looking for somebody new instead of recycling who came in second last time. The feeling is: Isn't there someone who could take on Obama with no baggage?'
Some strategists and activists are waiting to see not so much what the candidates do but what Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., does. He backed Romney in 2008, and with credibility among the grass roots and the establishment, he is likely to be a factor in 2012. He tossed an olive branch to Romney on health care recently.
'Nobody is swooning over Romney, but if he had the tail wind of a Jim DeMint endorsement, that would make him the winner,' Wynn said.
David Woodard, a professor at Clemson University, thinks the old South Carolina will reassert itself before all is said and done.
'The tea party was a novelty in 2008. It won't be in 2012,' Woodard said. 'If you look back at past insurgent movements, they just hit a dam in South Carolina. We'll have to wait and see.'
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