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Anyone’s Race in South Carolina

Tim Dominick/The State/MCT
Rep. Michele Bachmann stumped across South Carolina last week with a handful of rallies, hoping to capture support among social conservatives.

But they and the other candidates are going to have to explain their flawed positions honestly, exhibit the willingness to endure the political heat many voters believe will accompany any attempt to address Washington's fiscal crisis and ultimately convince voters that they are the best candidate for creating jobs and righting the nation's economic ship.

South Carolina Republicans also want to support a winner who can beat Obama, meaning success in Iowa or New Hampshire is a prerequisite.

Ryggs described the current field as "conservative to somewhat conservative to moderate no liberals" and said she could "pull the lever" for just about any one of the candidates.

"Some of us are pretty happy with the field," she said. "Are some people looking for a better choice? Sure. They always are."

In interviews with unaffiliated Republican operatives and those already working on campaigns, there was a consensus that within reason across-the-board issue purity matters less than a candidate's ability to project leadership strength. South Carolina Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who won in November after ousting an incumbent Republican in the 2010 primary, said he has advised the presidential candidates with whom he has spoken to de-emphasize political rhetoric.

"Look people in the eye and tell them the truth," Loftis said during an interview in his Columbia office, adjacent to the state Capitol. "Voters don't want the candidates to throw red meat at them. They want someone who tells them the truth."

Loftis, who has yet to endorse and is not in a hurry to back a candidate, described the primary contest being as "wide-open" as any he's ever seen.

DeMint is described as the one South Carolina Republican whose support could actually tip the scales in the race, should he choose to get involved. He's believed to have more influence than Gov. Nikki Haley (R), who won last fall with the help of the tea party and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

One Republican operative with experience in statewide races described DeMint a folk hero among state and national conservatives as an "exception to the rule that endorsements don't matter."

The Senator and a cadre of South Carolina political operatives have loosely coalesced under the "Keep Your Powder Dry Caucus" in the hopes that their neutrality in the primary might allow the best candidate to rise. They also aim to elevate their ability to help a candidate should the group end up endorsing at some point down the road. In 2008, DeMint endorsed Romney. (As voters in South Carolina questioned his social conservatism, Romney earned just more than 15 percent of the vote that year, a fourth-place showing.)

DeMint's general popularity among South Carolina Republicans and demonstrated ability to raise money and motivate grass-roots conservatives are among the reasons his endorsement could be the most sought after of the cycle. "An endorsement from him could have a significant impact across the board," said Republican consultant Warren Tompkins, who backed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour early on but has remained unaligned since the governor decided not to run.

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