April Showers: South Carolina's '08 Deluge
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 10: (L-R) Musicians Frank Sampedro, Billy Talbot, Neil Young, and Ralph Molina of the band Crazy Horse perform onstage at the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Paul McCartney held at the Los Angeles Convention Center on February 10, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images) / Jason Merritt
"It is really the perfect political storm for us," said South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson. "We have candidates all over the state."
U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney all plan multiple visits in April. And all the Democratic candidates will be in Orangeburg for their party's first prime-time debate on April 26.
"Whoever hasn't been here will have to get here in April," says Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist and GOP consultant. "The competition is going to get too far ahead of them if they don't," he said.
South Carolina is hosting the first Southern primaries early next year, so candidates for months have been flocking to the state for stump speeches and fundraisers. And while the autumn will bring fairs that offer White House hopefuls the chance to meet likely primary voters, the April county conventions are where GOP candidates can meet the serious activists.
"They have to nail their base down," said Robert Rabon, GOP chairman in Horry County, where Giuliani is expected at a minor league baseball game and which will host Romney as its convention's keynote speaker April 14. "It's going to be won or lost in the next few months."
County conventions are the building blocks for the Romney campaign, spokesman Kevin Madden said. They have "key people within the party that can help us move beyond the seedling part of the campaign and really grow the organization so we can be as competitive as we can," he said.
Giuliani spokesman Elliott Bundy declined to talk about specific visits but confirmed at least two trips are planned in the next few weeks. "There's always the possibility of more trips," he said. McCain's campaign said South Carolina can expected to see the senator "consistently" in the coming weeks and months.
To cope with the onslaught and the voter interest, some county parties are coordinating their schedules so candidates can stop at multiple big conventions, Dawson said. For instance, Greenville is holding candidate forums on the morning of April 21 and neighboring Spartanburg will hold its a couple of hours later.
Those locales are key. About 40 percent of the GOP primary vote will come from them and other counties in the northern part of the state, said Francis Marion University political scientist Neil Thigpen.
The April 26 Democratic debate anchors three days of events, including the state party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner and the state convention. They're all prime spots for candidates to meet Democratic Party voters.
The candidates will need to spend weeks wooing Democrats before that debate-dinner-convention triple play, said Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon.
"They want people to be primed to listen to them — otherwise it's going to be the big three" of U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, and John Edwards, the South Carolina native and former U.S. senator from North Carolina.
Clinton and Obama both have pre-debate visits planned. Edwards is expected, too.
April may be a cruel month for presidential hopefuls, too.
The big GOP county conventions come just as candidates report first-quarter fundraising — figures observers will use for months to handicap each candidate's ability to compete. By mid April, "a few of these candidates may as well have the ministrations of Susan Sarandon at their side — Dead Man Walking," Huffmon said.
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