COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley helped kick off the unofficial start to the Republican presidential primary season Tuesday by headlining a Statehouse tea party rally with potential 2012 hopeful U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Bachmann isn't the first Republican to come courting South Carolina voters this year, but she is one of a handful of candidates in the wide-open GOP field to take an early swing through this important primary state. Since 1980, no Republican has gone on to win the nomination for president without first winning the South Carolina primary.
"We're here because South Carolina is an extremely important state," Bachmann said, after a 10-minute stump speech before 300 or so gathered for a Tax Day protest. She rallied the anti-Obama crowd, calling him a "one-term president" and the "best friend that Wall Street has ever had."
Organizers with the Columbia TEA Party had expected attendance at the rally to top 2,000. TEA stands for Taxed Enough Already.
Bachmann is gauging support for a presidential bid, and said she plans to decide by June or early summer whether to run.
She met with Haley before the rally, but the governor said Bachmann did not ask for her endorsement. Besides, Haley said, she is not ready to throw her support behind any one candidate. Haley's endorsement will be a boon to any Republican presidential candidate, given her popularity with the tea party crowd.
The governor told The Post and Courier last week that she has not decided who to support.
"There is no one that is exciting me at the moment, but I have always said that I think the environment will dictate who that person is going to be," Haley told the newspaper. "When the time is right, I will endorse."
Some have speculated that Haley herself is courting the presidential candidates with an eye toward becoming a candidate for vice president. Haley told The Post and Courier that she plans to stick around South Carolina.
"The thing is, I absolutely love this state, and the best thing I can do for this state is be a great governor and that's what you're going to see me do," Haley said. "I think all of the national talk is just that. It's national buzz and it doesn't mean anything. We don't take it seriously."
One of the next big 2012 political showings in South Carolina will be the Fox News First in the South Presidential Primary Debate on May 5 in Greenville.
Planning to attend so far are former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a former Georgia resident who lives in Virginia; U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas; Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota; Buddy Roemer, former governor of Louisiana; and Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
Vern Rogers of Chapin and his wife, Alene, came to the rally "to be counted among the opposition to what's going on in our country." Rogers said given South Carolina's role in the presidential primaries that people in the state need to "step up" for what they believe is right.
Rogers also said that while he was in the Columbia area he planned to go "gripe" about his vehicle taxes going up on his 2006 silver Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck, and delay mailing in a check.
"I'm not going to pay until the last minute," he said.