GREENVILLE, S.C. — There's no natural frontrunner in the Palmetto State.
The presidential primary here is more wide open than it has been in decades, as conservative activists, rank-and-file Republicans and many GOP insiders search for a candidate with just the right combination of philosophy, pizazz and electability to beat President Barack Obama.
Led by Sen. Jim DeMint — described by multiple Republican operatives here as extraordinarily influential and a possible kingmaker should he endorse — several longtime GOP political insiders have remained neutral. Republicans in this group, who would usually be aligned at this point in the process, have no plans to back a candidate anytime soon, certainly not before Labor Day. Voters are equally undecided, although the economy is likely to be the defining issue of the South Carolina contest.
David Weaver, 70, a retired helicopter mechanic, arrived early at a Greenville shopping center parking lot last Wednesday, braving the near-100-degree afternoon temperature to see Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). This upstate community is a Republican stronghold known for its social conservatism. But Weaver, an undecided voter, said he wants to find a candidate who can — above all else — turn the economy around and clean up Washington's fiscal mess.
"The unemployment rate is terrible. I have nephews and relatives who are out of work — they've been out of work for several years. We need somebody who can really create jobs, that understands how jobs are formed," Weaver, who was wearing a yellow baseball cap emblazoned with the Gadsden flag, told Roll Call after Bachmann finished addressing a crowd of about 200 people. "Government doesn't form jobs, it's the small-business people, entrepreneurs that start and create jobs."
In fact, most people in South Carolina's influential socially conservative voting bloc are primed to vote their pocketbooks first in the 2012 primary, as long as they are comfortable with a candidate's positions on abortion and marriage. What South Carolina Republicans are looking for most, according to GOP operatives both affiliated and neutral, is authenticity, toughness and economic know-how. Voters' particular emphasis on jobs this time around is perhaps why certain candidates aren't automatically excluded.
Spartanburg County GOP Chairwoman LaDonna Ryggs said Republicans can overlook red flags that might normally be unforgivable.
During a lunchtime conversation in the dining hall of Greenville's Bob Jones University, a Christian college and seminary where she holds an administrative post, Ryggs highlighted the candidates who might have had trouble in previously competitive primary cycles.
She said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman can get past his support for civil unions, not to mention serving as Obama's ambassador to China, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney can survive his sponsorship of a state health care law similar to the president's federal health care law.
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.
South Carolina has become a Republican bastion and generally demands strong conservative values, fiscally and socially, from its statewide elected officials. In previous campaigns, abortion and religion have played large roles in the electorate's mood. But the state is not monolithic. South Carolina does not have party voter registration, allowing independents to participate in either the Democratic or Republican primaries.
The regional breakdown that used to find the social conservatives upstate, the national security and moderate Republicans in the coastal low country and the more pragmatic Republicans in midlands area in and around Columbia has become scrambled. Retirees and young transplants have moved into South Carolina and the economy has become a priority of almost every voting bloc, including the tea party.
Tea party activists are too disparate and disunited to influence the election as a political force. But Barry Wynn, a former state GOP chairman and Spartanburg businessman who raised money for Rudy Giuliani in 2008, said tea partyers can't be taken for granted: "A lot of people agree with the goals and concerns of the tea party, and they make a difference."