2 S.C. political heavyweights to stay out of ring

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Clyburn, Sanford won't publicly support any presidential hopefuls

Two of South Carolina's biggest political heavyweights said they will remain on the sidelines during the upcoming presidential primaries, but for very different reasons.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn said he has all but made up his mind who he will vote for, and he said staying out of the fray is hard. Still, he plans to do just that to preserve South Carolina's future as an early primary state.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Sanford said he also plans to remain on the fence, but his reasons are more personal in nature. He said hitting the campaign trail on behalf of a presidential hopeful would take too much time from his work as governor and from his family.

As the state's most prominent black politician, Clyburn's endorsement could prove pivotal in what's shaping up here as a close Democratic contest between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — both of whom have aggressively courted the black vote.

As governor, Sanford is the state's most visible Republican to not jump in.

Asked Friday if he planned to remain neutral, he replied, "You never say never in the world of politics, but essentially I've said never."

Sanford said he has had pleasant visits with several of the candidates, and he said the closeness of the race — no fewer than six GOP hopefuls have polled above 10 percent at times — is a reflection of the party's lingering turmoil following its nationwide basting in the 2006 elections.

"I think this unrest, this inability of the Republican electorate to lock in behind one candidate, is a function as much as anything of the times that we're in, and the degree of frustration that conservatives have felt with the Republican Party in general, as it is where any of the candidates are," he said.

Unlike Clyburn, Sanford said he hasn't made up his mind. "I'm probably as undecided as everyone else," he said. "I think there is something interesting going on out there which is a whole lot of soul searching by people in the conservative movement and by Republicans."

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South Carolina's Democrats, who were some of the few nationwide unable to capitalize on the nation's dissatisfaction with Republicans, hope to rebuild their party by relying on early presidential primaries to identify and energize their base.

Clyburn said if he were to weigh in during the presidential campaign, that could make national Democrats more hostile to the state's early status.

"A lot of people try to use that against South Carolina — the fact that if I were to endorse, it would ruin the integrity of the primary. The South Carolina Democratic Party thought it would work against rebuilding the party if I did."

Clyburn also said state lawmakers, who recently agreed to pay for the cost of holding the presidential primaries, also might be unhappy with him if he were to back a candidate. "I think I would be breaking faith with the South Carolina General Assembly if I were to get involved. I'm sort of checkmated."

Clyburn said he thinks he knows who he will vote for, but that could change if the candidate were to stumble seriously in Iowa or New Hampshire.

"There are only two issues in this campaign," he said. "No. 1, who can best change the direction of this country. This country is on the wrong track. ... The second issue is: Who has the best chance of winning? When you get beyond those two things, all the rest of it you can fill in."

As leaders of their respective parties, Sanford and Clyburn both have another good reason to remain above the fray, University of South Carolina political science professor Blease Graham said.

"There's the potential for divisiveness," he said. "I think these two individuals as party leaders, active in office, would want to stay apart from what could be an internecine war — or battles within the party.

"Each of them respectively has influence, but as leaders, I think they're saving their most meaningful influence for the general election."

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