Leaders wait for Graham to decide


COLUMBIA — Many of the General Assembly’s 170 members have a lot to offer a presidential candidate: a built-in network of supporters, deep roots in their communities and the voters’ trust.

While February’s presidential primary is a political lifetime away, observers say looser fundraising rules for undeclared candidates and the likely entrance of U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham into the fray has kept many in the Statehouse from backing a candidate.

“Ready, set, wait,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, describing lawmakers’ attitude.

On the Democratic side, some are waiting for presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton to come to South Carolina and get face time with lawmakers and other potential supporters. Clinton is expected to visit May 27.

Democrats have said Clinton shouldn’t take the state for granted.

“People want to be courted,” said Tyler Jones, spokesman for House Democrats.

Not all are sitting on the sidelines. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Belton, have openly supported presidential candidate Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, popular with the libertarian wing of the GOP. Rep. Neal Collins, R-Easley, has attended events for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and helped spread his message.

Likely presidential hopeful former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush hasn’t officially declared his candidacy, another factor that has many Republicans waiting.

After edging toward New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greer, later met with likely Republican contender and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“He’s a strong Christian, he survived a recall, there’s no black cloud,” Henderson told the Journal. “Scott Walker could pull off an Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire triple.”

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Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, a political consultant, is working for and backing likely candidate Donald Trump, the reality show celebrity and real-estate mogul.

“I think he can win,” Merrill said of Trump in an interview. “The Democrats have turned the presidency into a People Magazine or TMZ referendum. Unfortunately, we’ve let them get away with that. We need someone who’s comfortable in that medium and somebody who has a little bit of celebrity to them.”

President Barack Obama was often criticized for being a celebrity candidate.

Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Cayce, whose political firm does work for Graham, said things should open up after the senator’s expected announcement June 1. “You’ll have people jumping on board,” Quinn said. “I think there are a lot of folks waiting to see what he does and are going to back his play at the Statehouse.”

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who hasn’t yet decided whom to support, has been courted by numerous GOP potential contenders. He said the process is about a personal touch. “You want to be with a winner,” he said. “And you want to have a close relationship with someone who is the next president of the United States.”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.