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.