Steady stream of visits to Charleston planned this week by GOP presidential candidates

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Charleston’s importance in the Republican presidential selection process will be highlighted in the week ahead as a flood of candidates is expected in the next eight days, showing the importance of visiting the first Southern primary state early and often.

The run begins this morning when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and his family attend an Easter sunrise service near The Battery.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, New York businessman Donald Trump and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul are some of the others.

Why so much interest this week? Two main reasons.

First: Congress is on a two-week Easter break and some of the potential candidates are using the downtime to escape Washington.

Second: Charleston and coastal South Carolina remains a lucrative voting bloc, dominated by a mix of military retirees, faith-based voters, tea party supporters and Republican-leaning moderate suburbanites.

Still, some see the trips primarily as part of the process of collecting names of potential supporters, and appealing for campaign cash.

“At this stage, a lot of the campaign stops are about fundraising,” said College of Charleston political scientist Jordan Ragusa.

He added “ideologues on both sides of the aisle are more likely to donate than moderates. So South Carolina may be more friendly terrain for fundraising purposes.”

South Carolina’s GOP primary is set for the middle of next February, but the exact weekend has not yet been announced by party leaders in charge of the calendar.

Most of the candidates have visited the state already, though not to every corner.

Also scheduled to make Charleston-area visits in the coming days are former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who, along with Trump, will address a convention of state financial officers. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who’s been in Charleston more than anyone in the field, will attend the Dorchester and Charleston county conventions Saturday.

The biggest single scheduled event in the week ahead comes Thursday when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul formally launches his South Carolina campaign with a rally in the grassy area at Patriots Point, using the aircraft carrier Yorktown as a photogenic backdrop.

Ragusa said the Paul event already is creating significant buzz among college-aged students who are in tune with his brand of liberty politics.

“ ‘Young Americans for Liberty’ is a very active club at the College of Charleston,” Ragusa said of the group that previously has been identified with Paul’s father, former congressman Ron Paul of Texas.

“I can think of a dozen students in my classes who will be there on Thursday,” he added.

So far only Cruz has formally committed to entering the race. The first-term lawmaker last week made his first foray into South Carolina since declaring last month he would seek the White House.

Most all of the coming week’s visitors are part of what poll numbers indicate are the lower-tier favorites in South Carolina, where former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham are at the top. Bush and Walker recently appeared with Gov. Nikki Haley during their first forays into the state last month.

But political watchers are cautioning that the 2016 race should, in no way, be couched today as a Bush-Walker showdown. Campaign visits, like the ones Charleston will experience this week, are part of the vetting process that allow voters to see how candidates act in person, along with how they present their stances and the media scrutiny that goes with it.

“For many voters out there, Bush and Walker — they still don’t know a whole lot about either one of them,” said Citadel political scientist B. DuBose Kapeluck.

“So I don’t think it’s over by a long shot,” he added. “You never know what could come up. It’s way too early to be signing this thing off as a Bush-Walker contest.”

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.