S. C. again at political center stage

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Friday night in Columbia.

Mary Ann Chastain

COLUMBIA — Mere months after the 2012 election, South Carolina is a buzz of political activity with a slate of potential presidential candidates already looking ahead to the state’s “first in the South” primary still three years away.

Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party favorite with national aspirations, descended on South Carolina on Friday to whip up the partisan faithful and offer a presidential campaign tease for the state. Both parties are preparing for next week’s special congressional election featuring former GOP Gov. Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.

“As soon as I show up in South Carolina, the Washington press corps comes out and says, ‘Is Biden getting ready?’ ” the vice president said at an annual party dinner, insisting that he came at the request of another Democrat, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. “I’ve got to make clear: I would go anywhere Jim asked me to go.”

At the Democratic confab, more than 1,000 packed a convention center ballroom for the $125-per-person dinner, where Biden laid into House Republicans for “fighting like the devil” for a budget plan that he said slashes education, undercuts law enforcement and gets rid of Medicare.

“Where are they from? What don’t they understand about this country?” Biden said, his voice rising to a roar. “What don’t they understand about those decent Americans, who paid their whole lives, who built this country, who fought in wars?”

Cruz reminded Republicans at an annual state GOP dinner that less than a decade ago the party controlled the White House and Congress. He said Republicans could begin to turn the tide by regaining control of the Senate in the 2014 elections. “Things can change quickly,” Cruz said.

In this conservative state that reliably votes Republican in national and statewide general elections, partisans already are getting a hefty amount of attention. Typically, South Carolina finds itself at the center of American politics for a brief time every four years during the presidential primary season, when it usually is the third state to weigh in on who should become the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.

South Carolina’s primaries have played an important role in the nominating process for both parties; the state gave Barack Obama a commanding victory in 2008 and until last year, every Republican nominee had won the state’s primary since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Years ahead of the 2016 contests, Republican and Democratic hopefuls alike already are starting to survey the landscape, court support and weigh in on local matters, with wide-open fields shaping up in both parties.

“The activists in this state are unhappy about the results of the presidential election,” said Jay W. Ragley, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. “They’re looking for someone who has a message which national Republicans can rally behind.”

With Obama barred from seeking a third term, Democrats here also may be starting to seek their own consensus candidate.

This week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 candidate, endorsed Sanford, and the party announced that Paul would hold fundraisers for Republicans in the state on June 28. Last month, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, talked up his record and heaped criticism on South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley during a Democratic event in Charleston, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, said to be eyeing another run after losing the GOP nomination last year, campaigned for Curtis Bostic, who lost to Sanford in a Republican run-off for the open congressional seat.

Biden and Cruz were in the spotlight Friday evening speaking at party events about two miles from each other.

“I’ll bet they’re talking about the middle class ooph,” Biden said mockingly of Cruz’s Republican event.

Cruz told the GOP gathering that Biden was in Columbia. “You know, the great thing, you don’t even need a punch line. You just say that and people laugh,” he said.

Cruz joined a chorus of people paying tribute to former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who was an early supporter of the freshman senator.

The vice president headlined the state party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner and then dropped by an annual fish fry held by Clyburn.