Republican candidates test waters in S.C. Presidential hopefuls prep for 2016 primary

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham

With a year to go until South Carolina's GOP presidential primary, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's two stump talks in Spartanburg and Columbia last week help illustrate what the 2016 hopefuls are up to.

It's speaking to small groups of potential donors, searching for consultants to hire and parachuting in to gauge support among the party faithful while building name recognition.

“It's the (position) that everyone is at right now,” said consultant Walter Whetsell, of Starboard Communications, who worked on Perry's previous short-lived South Carolina campaign and is advising him again this year.

“It's trying to figure out how viable they are.”

While their testing the waters goes on, probably into the summer, it looks as if the state's top Republican, Gov. Nikki Haley, plans to stay on the sidelines for now.

A Haley spokesman said the governor “has very good relationships with several people who are considering running for president, and she encourages all of them to come to South Carolina often.” Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Godfrey added that a year out, “it's far too early in the process for her to consider any endorsement.”

Potential Democratic candidates, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Virginia Sen. James Webb and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, have less incentive to campaign hard in South Carolina because it's solidly in the Republican camp.

Here's a look at where the potential 2016 GOP hopefuls are in terms of South Carolina footing.

It was no coincidence the former Florida governor used his appearance at the University of South Carolina winter commencement in December as a curtain-raiser to the news he was prepping for a White House run. Palmetto State Republicans have been highly supportive of the Bush family over the years, siding with George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush in previous primaries. But the state is six years removed from the presidency of George W. Bush, who last visited the Charleston area in 2008. Jeb Bush would have to start anew selling himself statewide.

Christie, the New Jersey governor and until recently the head of the Republican Governors Association, took part in two private meet-and-greets with S.C. Republicans — in Charleston and in Columbia — in recent months. His Charleston stop featured a high-profile endorsement appearance with Haley. During Haley's inauguration he attended a get-together at a Columbia law firm that drew several elected Republicans including state Rep. Phyllis Henderson, R-Greenville. “I think he's a reformer and he's not afraid to take on the tough issues,” she said. Henderson also likes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin governor made a big splash during last month's Iowa Freedom Forum that drew 10 potential GOP presidential hopefuls. His name also was mentioned positively by several S.C. GOP county chairmen during previous Post and Courier interviews when asked to name who they were looking at as potential primary picks. Walker won two elections in Wisconsin fueled by fights he took on against public employees' unions. He was also among those who appeared with Haley in Greenville in 2013 at her re-election kickoff. Last week Walker filed papers to create an exploratory committee called “Our American Revival.”

Jindal, the Louisiana governor, also appeared at Gov. Haley's campaign kickoff announcement. More recently, he chose The Citadel in October as the backdrop to deliver a defense and foreign policy speech in which he blamed the decline of American influence overseas on President Barack Obama. The Citadel has been a favorite and repeat backdrop for Republicans seeking the White House, previously drawing Romney, Gingrich and others.

The Kentucky senator known for his libertarian streak wasn't seen in the company of many recognizable South Carolina politicians during his two most recent stops in the Lowcountry. While here, Paul made an overt appeal to attract young people with his message of individual liberties, anti-government intrusion and rolling back drug laws. He's addressed cadets at The Citadel and students at the College of Charleston.

Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, was enthusiastically received at last month's S.C. Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, stirring up the crowd with a speech that said 2016 is not the time for the party to nominate a moderate. “Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney — if we nominate another candidate in that model, (then) the same people who stayed home in '08 and '12 will stay home again,” he said, “and the Democrats will win again in 2016.” Two advisors with South Carolina roots are associated with Cruz: Jason Miller, who ran campaigns for Mark Sanford in 2006 and 2013, and Nick Muzin, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Tim Scott when he was in the House of Representatives.

Perry's 2012 run for president both started, and ended, in Charleston. He declared his candidacy at the Francis Marion Hotel during a gathering of the red state bloggers meeting in 2011. He ended his bid at a North Charleston hotel just before the 2012 primary vote as polls showed he wasn't gaining momentum. This time around he's being advised by Whetsell and former S.C. Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson. Locally, Perry drew a large crowd last July speaking to a fund-raiser of Dorchester County Republicans in Summerville.

The former Pennsylvania U.S. senator finished third in the 2012 S.C. GOP primary, holding an election night rally at The Citadel where two of his sons now attend as sophomore and junior cadets. He's been a frequent visitor to South Carolina. At the Tea Party Coalition Convention in Myrtle Beach last month, he continued to speak out in support of the middle class, a theme he's been carving out for months. “We better have a party and a movement that addresses and cares about the people who are losing hope and feeling like America doesn't work for them anymore,” he said.

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Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, spoke at the S.C. Tea Party convention last month in Myrtle Beach. He was received with applause from the audience and gave a shout-out to U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. Carson called for doing away with the Internal Revenue Service. “We have a horrendous tax structure. It's too complex. Nobody can comply with it and it's unfair,” he said. “We need something that is equally fair across the spectrum for everybody and that means either a flat tax or a fair tax.”

Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, visited the state in mid-January, participating in several low-key fundraisers in Orangeburg, Greenwood and Columbia. One of his most notable ties to South Carolina is that Terry Sullivan is a Rubio senior advisor. Sullivan previously worked on former South Carolina U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's campaign. DeMint endorsed Rubio for Senate during the tea party splash of 2010, but has since moved on to lead the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

The former vice presidential candidate appeared at the S.C. Tea Party Coalition Convention in Myrtle Beach last month by way of a three-minute pre-recorded video stamped with her SarahPAC. In the video, she gave shout-outs to DeMint, Scott and U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy. She also foreshadowed a visit and interest in South Carolina conservatives. “I will be in South Carolina pretty soon,” she said. “I hope I get to see many of you while I am there.” A Palin candidacy also could prove tricky for Haley — the former Alaska governor endorsed her during her first run for governor when she was trailing in the GOP primary field.

The former Arkansas governor and former radio host who also was a Fox News regular is on a 43-city, 14-state tour promoting his latest book, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.” The tour includes stops in Iowa as well as South Carolina and several other Bible Belt red states. Two of those stops were last Thursday and Friday in Rock Hill and Greenville. Spokeswoman Alice Stewart said Huckabee has been in talks about “building a team” in a number of the early states, including South Carolina, with “a lot of people.” The book tour and fundraising are his priorities for now, she said.

The former Hewlett-Packard CEO was the first speaker that Scott invited for his new “Women in Leadership” series. During her speech at Trident Technical College in North Charleston last September, she blasted Democrats' “fallacious and insulting” attempts to describe Republicans as waging a “war on women.” Fiorina was the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company and also a 2010 GOP candidate for the California Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham took a bigger step toward formally jumping in last week by announcing he's set up a “Security through Strength” political committee. It will allow him to raise money for travel and do research for a potential 2016 run (he can't use his Senate campaign money to explore presidential options). A Graham bid in South Carolina would be intriguing in his home state, if he survived past New Hampshire. Do Republicans support their resident lawmaker, giving him a win that would extend the GOP race further? Or do voters not take him as serious White House material? Conservatives who dominate the primary turnout might come out strongly against him in response to charges he's been too eager to work with Democrats on Capitol Hill. Columbia consultant Richard Quinn is committed to working with Graham until he decides whether to formally run, probably by spring.

The real estate mogul and reality TV celebrity was a keynote speaker at the S.C. Tea Party convention, saying he was giving serious thought to running for president in 2016. He used the platform to be especially critical of Romney and Jeb Bush. “I was right in 2012,” he said. “I said that I don't see a strong candidate, but we had Mitt Romney and we went with Mitt Romney and he failed. He let us all down, to be honest with you. For him to be running again is outrageous.” Trump likely will make a decision over the next few months.

Former Virginia Gov. James Gilmore, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have all entered the presidential discussions, but haven't shown significant public-play in South Carolina so far.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551