Alex Brandon, File, Associated Press
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — By this point every four years, South Carolina expects to see a flood of White House hopefuls crossing the state, from its low country swamps to its upstate farms to its coastal communities.
This time, there's been a mere trickle.
Republicans weighing presidential bids have all but ignored the state that in modern history has played an outsized role in GOP nomination fights: Since 1980, the South Carolina primary winner has emerged with the conservative seal of approval and eventually clinched the party's presidential nomination.
The tea party has upended the political landscape in this longtime Christian conservative stronghold. There's buzz about Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party hero, launching a presidential bid of his own. As unlikely as that is, it would give him favored-son status. The overall sluggish nature of the 2012 nomination race also is reflected here; would-be candidates haven't officially entered a race that will be both costly and exhausting.
"It's just slower than I've ever seen it," said Alexia Newman, a Republican who recently met with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the few regular visitors so far, at the crisis pregnancy center she runs in this northern city.
South Carolina's primary is less than a year away. Beyond that, there are many unknowns — including the exact date and just who will compete.
Republicans may move the state's primary to earlier in 2012 than expected if Florida ignores Republican National Committee rules that say only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada can hold contests in February.
The tea party's influence also is causing upheaval just months after its darling, Nikki Haley, won the governor's race.
Activists from the libertarian-conservative coalition are in court fighting state GOP efforts to limit primary voting to Republicans, which would shut out independents now allowed to vote in the open primary. Exit polls from November's midterms showed that 65 percent of tea party backers considered themselves Republicans, while 26 percent called themselves independents.
Tea party activists also may be poised to take over county- and state-level GOP offices, making things even more complicated as would-be candidates determine who to woo.
"There isn't just one or two or three people they're going to have to kiss the ring," said Luke Byars, a former state GOP executive director. "They're going to have to appeal to a larger group of grass-roots conservatives."
The tea party's growing footprint is similar to the fight South Carolina's GOP saw 22 years ago as a well-organized Christian Coalition tried to gain party control.
This time, some hopefuls are making aggressive appeals to tea partyers.
"I want to hear what they've got to say about 2012," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who met with them on her first swing through the state last month.
Also unclear: just who in the potential field intends to play hard in South Carolina.
Santorum has visited it more than any other, 11 times since 2009. He's not well-known nationally but has strong conservative credentials that could play well here.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been here eight times. He has a national grass-roots following and is beloved by some religious conservatives, but his three marriages and admitted infidelity could be a turnoff.
Ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has visited South Carolina four times in the past year and a half. He made a big play for the state in 2008 only to abandon it as the primary neared, unable to convince GOP voters here to look past his Mormon religion and his reversals on some social issues.
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