By Hastings Wyman –
Ten months from now, on February 13, 2016, all eyes will be on South Carolina, which will host the first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary. The candidates are already assembling on-the-ground operations in the state, hoping of course, that their campaigns will still be viable after the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and contests in the West and Midwest.
Here’s an early look at how the Palmetto State campaign organizations are taking shape for the three announced Republican candidates – Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio – as well as the state’s favorite son, Lindsey Graham.
Ted Cruz, a freshman senator from Texas, occupies the most conservative position on the GOP’s ideological spectrum. Appropriately, he has hired LaDonna Ryggs, a Bob Jones University graduate, as his senior operative in South Carolina. Riggs is also a former chairman of the Spartanburg Republican Party and a veteran GOP campaigner, with ties to the party establishment as well as to the GOP’s evangelical and Tea Party wings. Reflecting the combination of religion and politics that he displayed by announcing his candidacy at Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University, Cruz aired some TV spots in South Carolina on Easter Sunday, some during NBC’s “AD: The Bible Continues.” Cruz is “very popular among the no-nonsense Tea Party types,” says Charles Waring, editor of the Charleston Mercury.
But Cruz has his detractors. US Rep. Tom Rice (R), who represents the Myrtle Beach district, told Politico, “I think Ted Cruz may be a little too extreme.” Adds Waring, “A lot of strategic thinkers seem to be concerned that he’s not enough of a uniter,” says Waring. “His conservative purity comes at too high a cost in terms of the average voter.”
The second GOPer in the 2016 race is Kentucky’s freshman senator, Rand Paul, known for his “libertarianish” views as well as a reluctance to adopt a shoot-first, talk-later foreign policy. When Paul made his first stop in South Carolina as a declared candidate, he spoke with the USS Yorktown as the backdrop, and he was accompanied by US Rep. Mark Sanford and state Sen. Tom Davis. US Rep. Mick Mulvaney sent a video to the occasion. Davis has endorsed Paul. Mulvaney and Sanford have not, but a GOP insider say they probably will at some point.
In his remarks, Paul walked a fine line between appealing to his libertarian, anti-war supporters on one side and the state’s traditional hawkish posture. If he is commander in chief, said Paul “the world will know that our objective is peace… And if war should prove unavoidable, Americans will fight with overwhelming force and we will not relent until victory is ours.”
Marco Rubio, despite being a senator from Florida, has strong ties to the Palmetto State. Terry Sullivan, a long-time South Carolina Republican operative who previously managed former US Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-SC) campaign and was on Rubio’s senate staff, is expected to manage his national campaign. Warren Tompkins, who helped run campaigns of both George H. W Bush and George W. Bush in South Carolina, has been named head of Rubio’s national super-PAC fundraising operation. Luke Byars, who is in the same consulting firm as Tompkins, is also on board for Rubio. Byars is a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party and has served as DeMint’s state director and campaign manager. Despite some conservative criticism of Rubio’s immigration policies, he does not catch much flak on the issue today and continues to get praise, if not endorsements, from such figures as US Sen. Tim Scott, a close friend of Rubio’s.
“Rubio is a very attractive candidate,” says Waring. “But can Florida have two top-tier candidates for president? We’ll soon find out.” Waring adds that Rubio is “not the only one who speaks Spanish.”
Lindsey Graham has been a player on the national stage since arriving in Washington in 1995 as a congressman. In 1998, he led the successful battle in the House to impeach President Bill Clinton. In the Senate, he has forged a strong alliance with US Sen. John McCain, who will likely endorse Graham. Graham hopes to use his standing as a leading hawk on defense and foreign policy as the central message of his campaign, especially in contrast to the more moderate views of Rand Paul. Graham has brought in Christian Ferry, a top aide to McCain, to run his campaign. South Carolinian Shel Suber is Graham’s political director. While his national exposure is a plus in his home state, “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘I’m for Lindsey Graham for president,’” says Waring.
Opinion polls at this point have little credence as omens for future results, but they do offer a snapshot of political opinion in South Carolina today. The Winthrop University Poll, taken earlier this month, showed two candidates who have not yet officially entered the race in the lead. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had 14% to 13% for Bush. Cruz was third with 8%, followed by Graham with just under 8%. Paul had 6%, Mike Huckabee 5% and Rubio 4%. A substantial 25% were undecided. Another poll taken this month, by Public Policy Polling (PPP), showed identical results for the top three: Scott led with 14% to 13% for Bush; Cruz was third with 8%.