Sanford's Implosion Turns S.C. Into 2012 Toss Up
Lost amid the salaciousness of Mark Sanford's disappearance, admission of an affair with an Argentine woman and his description of her as his soul mate (can you believe that happened?), is the fact that the political and personal implosion of the South Carolina governor has effectively thrown the Palmetto State's 2012 presidential primary wide open.
Sanford was rightly regarded as a heavy favorite in the South Carolina presidential primary due to a demonstrated fondness in national politics for favorite son candidates. (The most prominent -- and recent -- example of this phenomenon came in 1992 when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's (D) presidential candidacy turned the Hawkeye State's caucus into a non-competitive affair.)
Without him in the 2012 field, however, the state, which has voted for the man who has gone on to win the presidential nomination in every primary, becomes the purest of toss ups with no obvious favorite in the prospective field.
"Mark would have been South Carolina's favorite son in 2012," said Richard Quinn, a prominent South Carolina Republican consultant who helped run Sen. John McCain's efforts in the state in 2000 and 20008. "The other candidates would have bypassed us or else made only a token effort here. Now the Palmetto State is up for grabs again."
An initial analysis of the 2008 South Carolina Republican primary results suggest that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee might have a head start in 2012 given that he placed second -- with 30 percent -- behind McCain (33 percent) and ahead of fellow conservative Fred Thompson (16 percent).
The after-action report in South Carolina suggested that Huckabee, Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (15 percent) split the votes of social conservatives, which allowed McCain to shoot the gap, win the primary and go on to win the nomination.
Of course, assuming Huckabee is the early favorite in a Sanford-less South Carolina primary is a mistake given the fungibility of the field. Should Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin decide to run, her hero status among social conservatives would make her a serious contender in the Palmetto State. Without a southern governor in the field currently, Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) could run and make the case that he is best positioned to represent South Carolina's needs as the nominee. And, of course, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) would also feel compelled to play in South Carolina in order to show he could win outside of his upper Midwest base.
"We have an unblemished record of picking winners on the Republican side, something the other early states have no record of," said Walter Whetsell, the president of South Carolina-based Starboard Communications. "Every serious GOP contender understands that and would never devise a campaign strategy absent winning in South Carolina."
The true winners from Sanford's unexpected departure from the contest are not, in fact, any of the candidates mulling the race but rather the Republican political consultants who are as common in South Carolina as sweet tea and good barbecue. (Fix favorite in Columbia: The Palmetto Pig)
No state -- particularly one with an early presidential primary -- is so dominated by political consultants (Quinn, Whetsell, Warren Tompkins, Terry Sullivan, Jim Dyke, Adam Temple, Rod Shealy....the list goes on) who make a killing every four years on the cavalcade of candidates coming into the Palmetto State looking to use it as a springboard for their presidential aspirations.
With Sanford out, that "gravy train" (in the words of Ed Matricardi, yet another Republican consultant based in South Carolina) will almost certainly continue in 2012.
Expect any candidate with an eye on being the Republican presidential nominee to begin to cultivate South Carolina -- staff, visits, showering Palmetto State candidates with money -- over the next two years. And, they all have Sanford to thank.
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