CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina Republicans established their presidential primary more than three decades ago as way to raise the state's national political profile. They succeeded wildly.
Ever since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won, every candidate who has won the GOP primary in this Southern state of fewer than 5 million has gone on to claim the Republican presidential nomination. State party officials are fond of saying the road to the White House passes straight through South Carolina.
Harry Dent, the late South Carolinian who engineered Richard Nixon's 1968 Southern strategy of appealing to Southern conservatives, and Dan Ross, the late state GOP chairman, are generally credited with planting the seeds for the primary.
Former Gov. James B. Edwards, who in the 1970s was the first GOP governor of the state in modern times, says no one at the time thought the presidential primary would morph into what it has become today bringing all the major GOP candidates to crisscross the state with hundreds of reporters in tow.
"I wasn't that foresighted and I don't know that anybody else was or not. I doubt it," said Edwards, who is now 84.
South Carolina is a different battleground from the corn fields of Iowa and predominantly white New Hampshire. The state is poorer, more conservative and has a population that is 28 percent black. Voters don't register by parties so Democrats and independents enter the mix in the primary.
The state has also proven a second-chance for candidates who have stumbled in earlier contests with their different constituencies.
In the GOP primary in 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush beat Sen. John McCain of Arizona after he was upset by McCain in New Hampshire. Four years ago, it was McCain who capped a comeback following a dismal showing in Iowa with a win in New Hampshire and another in South Carolina.
Republican state Sen. John Courson, elected to the Senate in 1984, was a Reagan delegate in 1976 when Reagan lost the nomination to President Gerald Ford. Reagan supporters wanted a primary in 1980 because they believed Reagan would fare better against former Texas Gov. John Connally in an open primary than in a traditional nominating convention.
Courson said two elements have helped to make the primary a success: It's always been the first in the South and has always been held on a Saturday, which party leaders knew would bring conservative Democrats to the polls.
"We had to be the first-in-the-South primary. If any other Southern large state, like Texas or Florida, were before us, we would not see the candidates," he said.
What is lost with all the candidates trooping through is that the primary also helped build the modern Republican Party in South Carolina. Until 2008, the party ran the primary using volunteers. Now it's the job of the State Election Commission.1 comment on this story
Getting volunteers involved was central to building the GOP.
"If you start working with the party and working at the polls and organizing the primary, that gives you the stimulus to be a real party," Edwards said.
Much of the proof is in the office-holding.
In 1980, when the GOP presidential primary was established, only 23 of the 170 South Carolina state lawmakers and one of the nine statewide office-holders were Republican. Today, there are 103 GOP lawmakers and the party holds all nine statewide offices.