Days before S.C. primary debate, Republicans talk endorsements

Amanda Carey Contributor
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South Carolina hosts the first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 campaign season this Thursday. With its early primary, the Palmetto State is courted by any and all candidates interested in running for president – and often.

Newly-elected Governor Nikki Haley has said she will “absolutely” make an endorsement during primary season. That said, she’s also recently let it be known that she’s not satisfied with the current field of candidates.

“A lot of what bothers me with where the presidential politics right now is that I don’t want to hear about how awful President Obama is right now,” said Haley is a recent radio interview. “I want to hear what they are going to do different.”

“There is a group,” added the governor, “that has come through South Carolina. They are trying to tell me how they are going to win. I don’t care how they are going to win, I want to know how they are going to fix our country.”

The governor’s comments came after the courting of South Carolina and its fickle voters has already begun. A handful of potential 2012 contenders like Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, have visited the state in the past few weeks.

But all signs point toward a tough vetting process for candidates and one of the country’s fastest rising Tea Party governors. But some say presidential hopefuls may be courting the wrong South Carolinian.

“She’s nowhere near as popular as DeMint,” said South Carolina-based political consultant and former DeMint staffer Wes Donehue, referring to U.S. Senator Jim DeMint.

“Jim DeMint is the kingmaker in this state,” he added. “If she and DeMint were to go in opposite directions, I’d want his endorsement over hers.”

Warren Tompkins, of the Columbia, S.C. consulting firm Tompkins & Kinard, which handled Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign in the state and also served as an advisor to DeMint, agreed and called DeMint the “undisputed king of the Republican Party of South Carolina.”

“I know there are lots of people who are waiting to see what he will do,” Tompkins told TheDC.

“I think that both of them will be salt but in the Republican primary right now,” added Chip Felkel, another S.C.-based consultant who has worked for DeMint in the past. “It’s just that he’s [DeMint] very, very popular all across the base.”

Two states over, Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, is in a similar situation. He was elected a popular Tea Party candidate, yet his role in 2012 may be small compared to other Floridians.

“Governor Scott will be willing to meet with all serious candidates,” Susie Wiles, a longtime Florida Republican operative who worked on Scott’s campaign, told TheDC. “Winning Florida is critically important to the winning nominee.”

Even so, some don’t see an early Rick Scott endorsement as being particularly crucial.

“The biggest gets in Florida endorsements are Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush,” Florida media strategist Rick Wilson told TheDC. “Rick Scott will be more important as 2012 progresses, but for now he’s been focused on the legislative session.”

In Greenville, S.C. however, the debate on Thursday is already making headlines for its stunning lack of participants. The only candidates signed on are Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Buddy Roemer, and Herman Cain. By most accounts, Pawlenty is the only candidate attending with a serious chance of winning the nomination.

So why the lack of interest?

“It’s more of a decision across the board to push campaign season back as much as possible,” Tompkins told TheDC. “The whole situation sort of evolved in that the whole campaign season and what we’re used to is different this time.”

On Pawlenty’s decision to participate, Tompkins attributed it to the fact that it is a “fledgling campaign” looking to take advantage of every opportunity to ingratiate itself with future voters.

“It’s just risky when you get put on stage absent some of the bigger ones,” he added. “He’s got more to lose by participating.”