Trump and Bachmann Woo GOP Voters in South Carolina

The Palmetto State has picked the GOP nominee every year since it began holding the first-in-the-South primary in 1980. Patricia Murphy visits and finds lots of love for two unlikely candidates.

04.23.11 9:47 PM ET

When Rich Bolen introduced Haley Barbour at South Carolina’s Lexington County Republican convention in early April, he took the liberty of describing the Mississippi governor as a presidential candidate.

“He corrected me and said, ‘I am not a candidate,’” says Bolen, the county’s GOP chairman. “He went out of his way to say that he was not a candidate yet.”

It was an awkward, but understandable, point of confusion, since Barbour had shown up for the local party’s presidential straw poll, but then refused to admit he wanted the office.

Barbour is one of a half-dozen Republicans taking a curiously stealth approach to the presidential primary here in South Carolina, which has picked the GOP nominee every year since it began holding the first-in-the-South primary in 1980. Despite its crucial status, the state has yet to be truly wooed by any of the establishment contenders for 2012. And the silence, activists say, is deafening.

Tim Pawlenty, the earnest favorite of some inside-the-Beltway GOP types, has visited South Carolina just once, while the party’s presumptive frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has hired no local staff, made no trips to the state, and, in the view of local operatives, is a better candidate for the witness protection program than the White House as far as primary voters are concerned.

Mike Huckabee, the well-liked runner-up in 2008, says he is weighing his financial future against his electoral future as he decides whether to leave Fox News to run again.

Like Barbour, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senator Rick Santorum have zig-zagged the state from the Piedmont to the Low Country and back, but neither Gingrich nor Barbour has yet announced an actual presidential candidacy.

“I don’t understand the logic behind the lack of commitment on the part of these candidates,” says Bolen. “We have nothing to evaluate. We don’t even know what the candidates would run on. The only question is, ‘Are you running?’”

Local Republicans say this waiting game by the usual suspects has created a gaping void among South Carolina activists who are hungry for passion, not to mention answers, from their candidates.

“We want somebody who isn’t out there bowing to foreign kings and apologizing for our way of life.”

And into that void have stepped two unlikely favorites, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump. While Trump has blitzed virtually every TV network and cable news show around to slam President Obama, Bachmann has been in the Palmetto State wooing Tea Party activists and warning that Obama “is not on our side.”

The willingness of these two blunt-spoken Republicans to go after the president on nearly every issue has grabbed the attention of South Carolina activists—and could grab their votes as well. “Donald Trump is getting such accolades is because he’s taking it to the Democrats. He’s not afraid to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening. It’s our country and we don’t want to see it going in this direction,'” says LaDonna Ryggs, chairwoman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party. “I would say the same thing about Michele Bachmann. She’s not backing down. Our voters want to see somebody like that.”

Ryggs says Spartanburg’s conservative voters are looking for the “total package, who is conservative on all the issues,” but she stresses that the way candidates talk will be just as important as what they say.

“We want somebody who isn’t out there bowing to foreign kings and apologizing for our way of life”—offenses that it’s hard to imagine the New York developer or Minnesota congresswoman committing.

Back in Lexington County, Rich Bolen says fiscal issues will override social issues because people in the Columbia suburbs are acutely worried about the national debt and demanding cuts in federal spending. There, too, Trump and Bachmann have caught on with locals, who picked Ron Paul to win their straw poll but named Bachmann and Trump their tops picks on the second ballot.

“Trump is filling a void because he is doing something. He is getting out there, he’s making statements that have some substance on policy,” Bolen says. “Michele Bachmann is filling the void, too. There are plenty of other conservatives thinking about the race who are more recognized and more qualified, but at least she’s available.”

Even in the moderate coastal region of Charleston, where federal spending and the debt dominate GOP voters’ concerns, locals say the will-I-or-won’t-I approach of the other presidential candidates is making Trump and Bachmann attractive by comparison—despite the fact that neither has committed to running.

“Whether they’ll support Donald Trump is another issue, but they do like the fact that he’s taking a stand,” Charleston GOP Chairwoman Lin Bennett says. “And that’s been a problem for us—our candidates don’t always take a stand on issues.”

Why the field is so late to materialize is anyone’s guess, but Lawrence Noble, a campaign-finance expert who practices law at Washington’s Skadden Arps, says the slow-to-the-gate approach likely comes down to money.

Candidates who are testing the presidential waters do not have to reveal their donors, while those who have made formal announcements must file federal disclosure reports and abide by “hard money” restrictions on how much they can raise from which sources.

“One of the reasons it’s called hard money is it’s hard to raise,” Noble says. “They’d rather avoid using that money as much as possible.”

The distinction will soon be moot for many of the candidates, including Gingrich and Barbour, who have said they’ll announce their presidential plans in the near future and likely in time for the first campaign debate, which is being sponsored by Fox News and held in Columbia on May 5.

While Trump and Bachmann are generating the early buzz, they won’t have the stage to themselves for much longer. Paul, Pawlenty, Santorum, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Romer have committed to the debate, while former Utah governor Jon Hunstman is slated to give the commencement speech at the University of South Carolina later in May.

All of the announced candidates will be invited to speak at the state’s upcoming convention. And Joel Sawyer, executive director of South Carolina’s Republican Party, says the clock is ticking.

“People have to get here and spend time with the activists,” Sawyer warns. “Anyone who waits until the end will not do well.”

Patricia Murphy is a writer in Washington, D.C., where she covers Congress and politics.