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.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's Southern drawl may have made Republicans here feel like kin during his three visits. And, here in Dixie, voters may look past his bungled civil rights comments. But will they bristle at his record of Washington lobbying?
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a hero to Christian conservatives here, and always gets a warm welcome. But he doesn't seem eager to run.
And what of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels? Or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin? Or ex-Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah?
Without a set field, South Carolina Republicans aren't in a rush to support or raise funds for anyone.
Consider that by March 2007, half of the state's House GOP caucus already had endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, and DeMint was backing Romney. McCain had 20 people on his South Carolina payroll. Romney had a dozen and Huckabee had five.
Not this year.
Also unclear: Who will Haley endorse? She backed Romney last time when she was in the state legislature and her nod as governor would be a big prize.
Tea party favorite DeMint also looms large over the field — even though he says he has no plans to run. Matt Hoskins, who runs DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, said flatly: "He's not running."
Still, speculation is rampant.
"If Jim's here, you're not going to win — nor should you win," Santorum said.
The DeMint talk may be why the state's biggest donors and influential endorsers seem wary of committing to candidates.
"It's difficult for the presidential candidates to come into the state and lock down folks who take an attitude that 'We're going to wait for DeMint to get in the race,'" said Chip Felkel, a Greenville consultant helping Barbour.
Perhaps the only thing that's certain is that the quiet days will end eventually
As Larry Bateman, a tea party activist, put it: "Candidates are going to be coming here and they'll be stumbling all over the patriots and the tea party."
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