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Little clarity so far in race to replace Sanford

December 29, 2009 With the current occupant of the Governor’s Mansion in Columbia barely hanging on to his job, a lot of attention has been focused on next year’s South Carolina governor’s race. But an InsiderAdvantage poll conducted for the South Carolina Statehouse Report shows voters in the Palmetto State are still up in the air over their choices, with no clear definition in either party’s primary field.

Among political insiders, Attorney General Henry McMaster – a former state Republican chairman with experience in statewide races – is generally considered the favorite in the GOP field. But he’s tied at 22 percent with Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer in this poll, and if self-identified Republicans alone were considered, Bauer would hold a 3-point lead.

Pointing to some incidences of erratic behavior in his two terms as lieutenant governor, some have questioned whether Bauer is ready for the top job. But he holds the strongest demographic edge of any candidate in either field, with 53 percent of voters age 18-29. (Nor has stability been exactly a hallmark of the governor’s office lately.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise is state Rep. Nikki Haley, who polled 3rd with 13 percent, ahead of US Rep. Gresham Barrett, who got in this race early and has had success raising money for his bid.

 After Gov. Mark Sanford’s problems became a national story, there was speculation Haley would be hurt because she was a protege of the staunchly libertarian governor. If there was any damage, it has been more than compensated for by the endorsement of South Carolina’s first lady (soon to be first divorcee) Jenny Sanford.

There’s still time for Barrett – who’s at 9 percent, only 3 points ahead of state Sen. Larry Grooms – to climb back in the race, or for McMaster to fulfill expectations. But less than six months before the June 8 primary, this race looks wide open.

The outlook for the Democratic primary is even murkier, with a whopping 44 percent of voters expressing no opinion about the candidates, compared to 28 percent in the Republican primary.

State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, the only statewide elected Democrat, leads the field with 21 percent, followed by lobbyist and longtime Democratic activist Dwight Drake with 15 percent. State senators Vincent Sheheen and Robert Ford, and attorney Mullins McLeod trail in the single digits.

The Dec. 15 poll of 770 registered voters has a 3.4-percent margin of error.

“It’s early and the races will become clearer.  But if I were anyone who showed support in the single digits -- I'd be a little worried.  My guess is somebody on the Democratic side will soon drop out and run for lieutenant governor, where the Democrats have no candidate,” said Andy Brack, publisher of the Statehouse Report.

The same poll showed 39 percent of voters thought the state was headed in the wrong direction, while 32 percent thought it was headed the right way and 29 percent had no opinion. That’s not wild optimism, but considering the state’s record unemployment and political disarray, it’s a surprisingly mild judgment by the electorate on the state of the state.

The past month has produced at least one clarifying element for the race: A legislative panel voted not to pursue impeachment against Sanford. That keeps Bauer in the race – he had said he wouldn’t run in 2010 if he became the interim governor – and means there won’t be any dramatic scenes of the governor being removed from office to divert attention from the race to replace him.





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