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'08 Primary Watch: McCain a Lock in S.C.?

The South Carolina presidential primary is nearly two years off, but it is already the dominant topic among the political operatives who call the Palmetto State home.

During my trip to the state last week, The Fix huddled with a number of Republican strategists -- both those already aligned with specific candidates and those currently watching from the sidelines. Out of my conversations came a clear sense that South Carolina Republicans believe their primary is the true test of a presidential candidate's ability to appeal to a broad cross-section of GOP voters, and, as such, will be the most important contest in the 2008 nominating process. (Strategists and politicians repeatedly pointed out that no Republican candidate has won the party's nomination without winning the South Carolina primary.)

My chats with GOP insiders in the state produced a sense of where things stand among the 2008 aspirants. Let's take a look.

Any conversation about the South Carolina GOP race begins with Sen. John McCain (Ariz). Running as the anti-establishment alternative to George W. Bush in 2000, McCain took 42 percent of the primary vote -- a showing that was boosted by Democrats and independents who were permitted to vote for McCain in the state's open primary. Coming off of his upset victory in the New Hampshire primary, McCain's loss to Bush in South Carolina effectively ended his campaign.

Unlike 2000, the 2008 race will likely feature extremely competitive primaries for both parties in South Carolina, making cross-over voting less likely and heightening the importance of winning Republican base voters, something McCain was unable to do in 2000.

Richard Quinn, McCain's top adviser in the state, said that much has changed for his candidate over the past six years. Defeating McCain's presidential bid, he said, is no longer seen as a cause celebre by the rank and file within the South Carolina GOP. In 2000, Quinn said he was "blindsided" by the huge increase in turnout by churchgoers, many of whom had never voted before in a presidential primary and almost all of whom went for Bush. "Those voters were made to be fearful of McCain," said Quinn.

As evidence of the change in attitude toward McCain among Republican primary voters, Quinn cites an October poll he did for Sen. Lindsey Graham (a McCain supporter in 2000 and 2008). McCain's favorable/unfavorable score among Republican primary voters was 65 percent/17.5 percent. (By way of comparison, Bush was at 72/24, Graham at 77/12, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist at 31/19, Virginia Sen. George Allen at 11/5 and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 46/26.) A recent American Research Group poll put McCain at 42 percent in a hypothetical South Carolina primary, with no other candidate registering in double digits.

Why the turnaround for McCain? Quinn believes that it's a combination of factors, including the senator's strong support for Bush in the 2000 general election and the 2004 reelection campaign. He also cited McCain's staunch support for the war in Iraq and a growing familiarity among S.C. voters with McCain's voting record. "People have figured out that McCain wasn't the guy they thought he was," Quinn said.

McCain is also benefitting -- both in South Carolina and nationally -- from the fact that no other GOP candidate has matched his behind-the-scenes gamesmanship in terms of lining up institutional support. In South Carolina, McCain has Graham and Quinn both working to mine support among activists who were solidly with Bush in 2000.

Quinn said that state Sen. John Courson, an influential political player and staunch Bush backer six years ago, is on board with the McCain effort in 2008. (It's worth pointing out, however, that Courson was also a cosponsor of the Lexington County Bronze Elephant Dinner that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addressed last Thursday.) Quinn said there are many more GOP regulars like Courson waiting in the wings to offer support but said he had been asked not to identify them "until they are sure McCain is running.

Does all this mean the Romneys, Allens and Frists of the world should simply tuck tail in the face of the McCain momentum in the Palmetto State? Absolutely not, according to South Carolina Republican Party executive director Scott Malyerck and political director Jay W. Ragley.

Malyerck dismissed McCain's strong showing in primary polls as simply a function of name identification. Given that the Arizona senator enjoys nearly universal name recognition in the state, Malyerck said it is telling that roughly 60 percent of primary voters are not sold on his candidacy. "That's a huge number that have seen him and want to go with someone else," he said.

Ragley compared McCain's standing in the polls to that of former Gov. David Beasley (R) during his unsuccessful 2004 Senate bid. Beasley entered that race at roughly 40 percent in the polls and remained there for the entirety of the contest -- eventually losing a runoff to Jim DeMint (R), 59 percent to 41 percent. "Beasley was never able to get over that plurality of folks who would not vote for him," said Ragley.

If not McCain, then which GOP candidate can win South Carolina?

Conventional wisdom has installed Allen as the most likely candidate to knock off McCain. But in South Carolina, Romney was the one who drew the most praise for his work.

Romney -- through his Commonwealth PAC -- has been seeding state legislative campaigns since the 2004 cycle when he won considerable good will by chipping in $1,000 to a handful of South Carolina state legislators recommended to him by the state party. All told, Commonwealth PAC has doled out more than $43,000 to variety of candidates and county organizations in the state.

In addition to his donations, Romney has been a regular presence in the Palmetto State -- making three stops in the state so far this year (tying him with Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for the most visits of 2008 hopefuls). Rumor has it that Romney is also closing in on hiring full-time staff in South Carolina -- the first '08er to make such a move.

"Governor Romney, out of all the candidates, has followed the Bush model the closest," said Ragley.

A Romney bid in South Carolina seems likely to face two major problems: He hails from the liberal bastion of Massachusetts and is a Mormon. The governor is seeking to allay both of those concerns by casting himself as a true conservative in his speeches in the state and proactively talking about his faith -- if not the specific tenets of Mormonism.

State Attorney General Henry McMaster (R) said that Romney's tenure as a governor will be far more important to voters than geographic concerns. "It all depends on the record, not where you come from," said McMaster. (McCain did a fundraiser for McMaster last fall and McMaster's top aide -- Trey Walker -- was heavily involved in McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.)

As for Allen, some air seems to have gone out of his balloon in South Carolina. Allen appeared to be riding high in late 2005 when his campaign manager -- Jason Miller -- moved to the state to serve in that same capacity for Gov. Mark Sanford's (R) 2006 reelection campaign. Since then, however, Allen has drawn two Democratic challengers -- Harris Miller and Jim Webb -- in his reelection race, which is now likely to keep him close to home between now and November. According to several well-connected political operatives in S.C., Allen has not done nearly the amount of outreach as McCain and Romney have, which could hurt him if and when he begins stumping for votes in earnest after this November.

Malyerck, the state party executive director, praised Allen for his "good, conservative, Ronald-Reagan-type message," and Ragley said Allen had won considerable loyalty from rank-and-file GOPers in the state for his work to elect DeMint to the Senate in 2004.

Allen may also benefit in South Carolina from his strong advocacy for Bush's judicial nominees -- especially Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel A. Alito Jr., according to Ragley. "Any candidate who wants to do well in South Carolina is going to have to say 'I see a limited role for the Court,'" he said. "If you are going to do that, you are going to do well with Christian conservatives."

The Fix will revisit South Carolina in the near future to look at how the 2008 Democratic primary is shaping up. Stay tuned.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 28, 2006; 3:11 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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