Immigration round table: Reform 'at best a stopgap'

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt (right) makes a point Monday during an immigration reform round-table discussion as State Sen. Bradley Hutto (left) and State Rep. Wallace Scarborough (center) listen.

COLUMBIA -- The Republican presidential line-up will come to Charleston in January.

CNN announced Thursday that the network and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference will host a Republican presidential town hall debate on Jan. 19. Other details have not been announced.

The debate will cap off about a year's worth of presidential campaigning in South Carolina. The date for the 2012 GOP presidential primary has not been set, but it is expected to be held early next year.

Hopefuls already are testing the waters in communities throughout the state.

Gov. Nikki Haley extended a welcome to the candidates.

"We welcome Republican candidates for president to our great state -- and to beautiful Charleston -- for what will be an important policy discussion about the future of our nation," Haley said in a statement.

Haley, a first-term Republican and tea party favorite, has been heavily courted by GOP presidential hopefuls, including U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota; Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Her endorsement will be political gold in this important presidential primary state. Since 1980, no Republican has gone on to win the nomination for president without first winning the South Carolina primary.

Ed McMullen, chairman of the Republican conference's board of directors, told CNN that the debate will be a chance for candidates to showcase their conservative ideas.

Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and a senior vice president of CNN, said Charleston was picked for the debate site because of the state's history of selecting Republican presidential candidates.

"Because of South Carolina's role as the first-in-the-South, as well as the many Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday, this debate provides 2012 GOP hopefuls an occasion to reach their key constituency in South Carolina and throughout the Southern region," Feist told CNN.

Charleston was the site of a Democratic presidential primate debate in July 2007 at The Citadel.

Republicans held their first debate of the 2012 presidential cycle on May 5 in Greenville.

The January debate will be part of the Southern Republican Leadership Conference's biennial gathering in the Holy City. The conference, announced early this year, promises to bring major Republican contenders and some 3,000 party faithful.

The news of the conference was met with opposition from the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The NAACP holds strong to a decade-long boycott over the Legislature's decision to move the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse to a monument on the grounds.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at @yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog.