It wasn't long ago that state Rep. Thad Viers (R) was the early frontrunner in the race for South Carolina's new Myrtle Beach-anchored Congressional seat.
Viers posted a reasonable six figures in the fourth quarter and had positioned himself as a conservative in the mold of the current GOP delegation. But in January he landed in jail on charges of harassment and dropped out of the race.
Now it's a wide-open Republican primary featuring nine candidates. Not all are expected to cough up the $3,480 to file by March 30, but the contest has the makings of a raucous free-for-all.
And for a seat expected to trend more conservative over the next decade, Democrats believe they have a real opportunity to grab the district this November.
The credible candidates for the GOP nod are Florence attorney Jay Jordan, Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice, Chad Prosser, former director of South Carolina's Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and former Lt. Gov. André Bauer.
Despite all the heavy-hitters — three of those candidates raised more than $200,000 last quarter — Republicans following the race still have their doubts.
"The field for us right now is a bit weaker than we would have expected in that none of the contenders can hold a candle to any of the four GOP Congressmen we currently have," said a senior Republican operative in the state who is unaffiliated with any candidate. "I'm just not seeing a lot of excitement about any of them."
One national Republican told Roll Call the party was closely eyeing the race.
"It is South Carolina, it is Myrtle Beach, Republican areas. But just being a new and open seat, you can't take anything for granted," the source said.
Roll Call rates the race as Likely Republican.
The way each GOP candidate sells himself to voters will help determine who can break from the pack. The primary is scheduled for June 12, with a runoff likely later that month.
Prosser, in an interview, called himself a "conservative reformer" and emphasized his proven ability to bring business experience to the private sector. But before serving for two terms in former Gov. Mark Sanford's cabinet, Prosser was twice elected as chairman of the Horry City Council — ammo his opponents could use to paint him as a longtime politician and Columbia insider.
Rice, who was elected as county council chairman in 2010, said his résumé would boost him.
"My credentials as a CPA and a tax lawyer give me expertise that the other candidates don't have," Rice said. "As an accountant I know how to balance books and, doggone it, I know we could use that in Washington," he added with a laugh. Republicans in the state see him getting support from the powerful Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. Rice's opponents are likely to paint him as a little too ambitious, filing his Federal Election Commission paperwork for a Congressional run after having been in the county-wide office for less than a year.
Bauer, as a former statewide officeholder, will have strong name identification in the district. And he's popular with seniors because of his work on issues important to them during his time as lieutenant governor.
"I've been in office a long time and I've got a record of not raising taxes," he said. "We've found a way in tough, tough times to make the numbers work."
Bauer rose to momentary national fame during his failed gubernatorial bid in 2010 when he drew a stark comparison between people who receive government assistance and "stray animals." His opponents won't let voters forget that comment. But Bauer said his frankness is a virtue, noting he speaks from the heart and doesn't have political consultants or a staff.
Pressed about the comments, Bauer responded tartly: "If I was smart, I wouldn't take your call, I'd let a political consultant take it."
Jordan, 32, will portray himself as a conservative outsider, a problem-solving nonpolitician.
But parochial concerns may end up playing the biggest role in the race. Jordan is from the Pee Dee region while the other top-tier candidates live in the Myrtle Beach area of Horry County.
Asked how he would convince Horry County voters, who are likely to make up half the primary electorate, to vote for someone from a different region, Jordan was direct.
"One at a time," he said with a chuckle. "It's going to all these counties and saying, 'If you want something different than what goes to Washington already, I'm the true conservative in the race.'"
South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian was bullish on his party's prospects in the 7th district, which would have voted just under 46 percent for Barack Obama in 2008 according to numbers crunched by a Democratic source.
"If a Democrat can portray themselves as someone who is not going to be part of the Nancy Pelosi or John Boehner House — 'a pox on both their house and I'm going to straighten it out,'" they can win,
Many Democrats think state Rep. Ted Vick, the likely Democratic nominee, is that candidate. A lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, he's been endorsed by the Blue Dog political action committee.
Vick said he is running against a do-nothing Congress and "extremists on the left and extremists on the right."
But it will be an uphill battle for those with a D after their name to win in the conservative Palmetto State.
Still, in South Carolina politics, nothing is for sure. Just ask Thad Viers.