They grow peaches and tobacco in South Carolina. And BMWs, too.
But as of this morning, this state’s primary surplus is in marbles. So far as the Republican presidential race is concerned, all of them can be found in the vast acreage between Charleston and Rock Hill.
Mitt Romney’s victory in his neighboring state of New Hampshire was less than a surprise. The only tension of the evening was whether Newt Gingrich would hit the mark he set for himself – third or fourth place. He finished fourth, ahead of Rick Santorum.
But South Carolina and its Jan. 21 vote will be the true test of whether we’re in for a truncated GOP race – or a long slog into April. A Romney victory – he led with 37 percent of the South Carolina vote in a CNN poll last week – would make it difficult for many of his opponents to justify a continued campaign.
“It would be very hard,” Gingrich reportedly told reporters as New Hampshire votes rolled in on Tuesday. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who nearly abandoned the contest after a poor finish in Iowa, may be in the same boat.
And so for the next 10 days, Georgia’s next-door neighbor is likely to be a savage land of last resorts. Romney will be the primary target. Another could be the woman likely to be at Romney’s side during much of the campaigning – Gov. Nikki Haley.
An endorsement from a popular governor is always a plus for a presidential candidate. A governor with baggage is not – and the amount of weight that Haley finds herself saddled with has become a hot topic of debate in South Carolina.
Haley’s endorsement of Romney was no surprise. She had backed the former Massachusetts governor in 2008. Last May, on the eve of his entry into the presidential contest, the South Carolina governor said that Gingrich would have to prove that his ideas were “still relevant.”
But last month, days before she made her most recent endorsement of Romney, a statewide South Carolina poll of 1,073 registered voters found that only 35 percent approved of the job she had done in her first year of office. Her approval rating was lower than that of President Barack Obama.
Haley’s campaign pollster put out a memo that declared the poll conducted by Winthrop University included “far too many Democrats and far too few Republicans” to be accurate. And the Romney campaign leaked an internal poll of the state that placed Haley’s job approval at 66 percent.
(Scott Huffmon, director of the Winthrop University poll, rejected the criticism as “unfounded,” and noted that a 2010 survey had accurately predicted Haley’s election.)
Yet even supporters of both Romney and Haley admit the South Carolina governor has struggled. “Have her numbers come down since she was elected? I think any governor’s numbers come down,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland County.
Haley’s emphasis on reform has cost her among South Carolina’s Republican establishment, Ballentine said. “But it’s just like with Romney. You don’t fix Washington by sending Washington back there.”
His is not a universal assessment. “When she got elected in 2010, it was with tea-party support and a number of social conservatives supporting her,” said Scott Buchanan, director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. “Some of that tea-party support has waned. She has promised transparency in government that she hasn’t delivered on — the tea party vote is not very happy with her now.”
Late last year, the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper asked Haley for instructions she emailed to a committee asked to determine whether the state should set up health care exchanges – pools that the uninsured could tap for coverage – under the new federal overhaul.
Haley said the emails didn’t exist. But the newspaper found them anyway. They showed that Haley had dictated the results of the study before the first meeting was held – the governor ordered a rejection of any participation in a federal exchange or the creation of a state-run exchange.
One of Haley’s problems has its roots in Georgia. “She’s catching a lot of flack about this whole port situation. That has cost her an enormous amount of political points, from her own party,” Buchanan said.
Last November, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control approved $500 million dredging of Savannah’s harbor – after words of encouragement from Haley, which were mightily applauded in Georgia.
South Carolina and Georgia have been locked in a fierce battle over which port – Savannah or Charleston – should dominate the region. Critics in South Carolina accused Haley of betrayal.
A month previous to the port decision, Haley had been in Atlanta, attending a fundraiser organized by Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican activist and Romney’s lead organizer in Georgia. Tanenblatt said this week that the event had been set in the spring and netted Haley only $15,000.
Legislators summoned the South Carolina governor to testify – but she refused, and lawmakers ultimately cleared Haley of any ulterior motives.
But the fracas could have an impact on the outcome of the South Carolina primary. The state is somewhat stratified, with the most conservative voters located in the northern, I-85 corridor of former mill towns. When he dives into South Carolina today, this swath will be Gingrich’s first target.
Haley’s strength – and Romney’s – lies downstate, close to the coast, Buchanan said. It is the area most attuned to the Savannah port controversy.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider