Attention all 2008 GOP Presidential hopefuls: If you're name isn't John McCain, there's a political army ready to take you under its wings here in South Carolina and offer you a first-class ticket to the White House.
Veteran GOP consultants Warren Tompkins, Heath Thompson, Terry Sullivan and Walter Whetsell have joined forces with one objective - recruiting a viable, recognizable (and let's not forget malleable
) candidate to defeat McCain here in the Palmetto State in the 2008 Presidential Primary.
And if you thought 2000 was a bloodbath, our guess is you ain't seen nuthin' yet.
The Warren-ites are actively recruiting the likes of U.S. Senator George Allen (R-VA) in the hopes of landing a big-name socially-conservative challenger to go up against the Arizona Senator, whom they bloodily repulsed on this same ground in 2000.
Of course, six years later with this future battle looming, the scars from the former fight have yet to heal. It seems every Republican in the state is still identified by whether or not they were "Bushies" or "McCain-ites." If anything, the visceral hatred these factions of the GOP maintain for each other has only intensified in the intervening years.THE SANFORD FACTOR
One question will be the role of Gov. Mark Sanford in the contest, assuming of course he does as expected and wins a second term in the Governor's Mansion. Sanford was the victim of the same cookie-cutter negative barrage that sent McCain reeling in 2000, delivered this time through the personage of former Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler.
In Greenville during the 2002 campaign, one Tompkins operative was asked by a reporter how Peeler (the presumed front-runner prior to a second-place finish against Sanford in the primary) would be able to slow Sanford's runoff momentum in just two weeks.
"We gutted McCain in three days."
They did gut McCain, but Sanford stuck to his message during the 2002 runoff, didn't take the negative bait and rolled over Peeler by a 60-40 margin to secure the GOP nomination.
Sanford, an enthusiastic McCain supporter in 2000, may be sending mixed signals as ground begins to be staked out for the 2008 contest. Presumably still in the McCain camp, Sanford has nonetheless hired former George Allen operative Jason Miller as his campaign director. Notoriously frugal, Sanford isn't paying Miller for his services. Reportedly, Miller is working for the Republican Senatorial Committee and using the position with Sanford to build a network in South Carolina in the event Allen runs here in 2008.
Where Sanford ends up pitching his tent for this fight could be a huge determining factor in whether or not it's McCain or somebody else who ends up winning the nomination.FALL OF THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT
Six years has done a lot to temper the fire (and the political clout) of the old school social conservative movement in South Carolina. Sure, abortion is always going to be an issue, but it will never be as powerful an issue as in was in 2000 or years past.
Gone are the days when the Christian Coalition could almost de facto
dictate the ballot decisions of the majority of GOP voters in South Carolina, a trend evidenced clearly by their deterioration and utter lack of effectiveness in both the 2002 and 2004 election cycles.
These rabid "Family Values" foot soldiers form the backbone of the grassroots army Tompkins and his cronies appeal to, but their numbers are steadily diminishing. Recent polls show fiscal issues - not social issues - are what Palmetto State voters are becoming increasingly swayed by, which is a dynamic Team Tompkins has yet to demonstrate that it either understands or can effectively manage.
Exhibit number one is U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the most fiscally-conservative elected officials South Carolina has ever seen. When DeMint announced he was seeking the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Fritz Hollings, he seemed to be the perfect candidate for Tompkins & Co. to prove their competence at managing a dollars-and-cents-themed campaign.
It didn't quite turn out that way. DeMint won, but his 2004 campaign was an unqualified disaster. Blistered by attacks from Democrat Inez Tenenbaum on a radical-sounding sales tax plan that had zero chance of passage at the national level, DeMint was bailed out in the end by his buddies Lindsey Graham and Mark Sanford - but not without his advisors doing their best to wreck even that effort.
The DeMint team offered an original version of the Sanford/Graham "bailout ad" that had both former McCain-backing politicians ripping Tenenbaum a new one, rapid-firing mud in typical Tompkins-Thompson-Sullivan fashion.
Luckily for DeMint, Sanford and Graham declined to dip into the gutter and convinced him to take the high road and tout his own record of fiscal conservatism instead of lashing back at the diminuitive lady in the red dress.
That move - along with DeMint unintentionally shifting the debate away from his tax plan with a controversial comment about unwed mothers made during a live television debate - managed to secure his win. In short, it was one of the few South Carolina statewide campaigns that managed to win in spite of itself, but if you're a Presidential wanna-be looking to win the Palmetto State, you'd be wise to take heed.
Chances are you'll have stiffer opposition than a two-term Superintendent of the nation's worst-performing public school system to deal with.THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY
McCain's South Carolina consultant, Richard Quinn, is the state's only other formidable, top-tier political strategist. He's beaten Tompkins more than anyone else has, and achieved a major coup in 2002 by getting Lindsey Graham into the U.S. Senate without the bloodshed of a divisive Republican Primary.
Graham, who defeated a credible, well-disciplined campaign run by former Judge Alex Sanders, has seen his popularity with voters rise steadily since taking office.
Knowing that the Quinn-Tompkins factions are thus committed to another full-scale Presidential battle like the one that raged across the state six years ago, the 2008 race could be impacted by the disposition of a number of wild cards. For example, will Gov. Sanford's 2002 ad-man Jon Lerner get involved with a campaign? Where will the always fiesty and unpredictable Rod Shealy end up? What about Bob McAlister and what's left of his share of the Carroll Campbell network? Who will the Merrills down in Charleston support? And what about former Sanford message doctors Chris Drummond and Will Folks, both of whom are now in the private sector and likely looking to make their mark on Presidential politics?
With political insiders switching allegiances on an almost daily basis in the Palmetto State, rest assured that the "enemy of my enemy" today may not be the "enemy of my enemy" tomorrow. How the dust settles after the 2006 contests, however, could be a good litmus test as to where these and other politicos will line up for the big fight in 2008.
Hang onto your hats - South Carolina is slowly but steadily moving toward another political bloodbath in 2008 that could further rupture the state's already splintered GOP, and once again the stakes are no less than the highest office in the land.