Is Vincent Sheheen the inevitable Democratic nominee for governor?
The June primary almost seems a foregone conclusion, especially if voters look at only one of the most important factors in winning state office - money.
But, before leaping to any conclusions, remind yourself of this: No votes have been cast, and none will until June 8.
Sheheen, the Democratic state senator from Camden, State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex of Fairfield County and state Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston are locked in a struggle to attract Democratic voters.
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Sheheen is the undisputed money leader, with $1.5 million on hand in April, a big advantage when it comes to buying advertising, for example.
However, Rex has his claim to being a serious contender, too.
He is the only Democrat holding statewide elected office, having led the state Education Department since 2006. His hope is that, as the old proverb goes, a good reputation - or at least statewide name recognition - is more valuable than money.
Rex also is hoping to rally Democratic voters concerned about schools, and the state's 54,000 school employees are a powerful voting bloc in a Democratic primary.
Ford is the clear long shot.
Ford fashions himself a fighter for the little people, representing a district with the largest unionized labor force in, arguably, the reddest right-to-work state in America. His one clear advantage is that he is one of only two African-Americans seeking statewide office in the Democratic primary, where blacks normally account for about half the votes.
"It's a close race," says Sheheen, who came into the race trailing Rex in name identification but has put up good polling numbers so far. "I started out in a position where I had to catch up (in terms of name recognition), and I'm still at it."
'WE'VE WORKED HARDER'
Sheheen has the money to outspend his opponents several times over, an important advantage to introduce Sheheen to voters beyond his Midlands base.
In more than a year of fund-raising foraging, Sheheen has gone into each of the state's 46 counties. "We've worked harder at it, and it's reflected in the travel and the money we've raised," he said.
Rex and Ford both have had more difficulty raising money.
But the Rex campaign doesn't think money will decide the race. The state's education superintendent had $113,000 on hand at the time of his most recent campaign report.
Rex campaign adviser Zeke Stokes said Rex doesn't have to spend as much as his opponents on advertising since he's already won statewide office.
What Rex lacks in money, he hopes to make up in other ways. "I would rather have 10 enthusiastic $25 donors than one enthusiastic $1,000 donor," Stokes said.
Ford, almost bitterly at times, complains that the S.C. Democratic Party has "shut me out" of fundraising opportunities. He said the party has not contributed "a dime" to his campaign.
Ford said three of his largest "favorable" constituent groups - lawyers, gays and unions - also have not contributed to his 2010 campaign for governor.
EXPANDING THE TENT
Ford said he is going after votes in conservative counties, where Democrats are a minority but still a substantial number of voters.
"I'm willing to talk to anybody in the state," Ford said. "Democrats like to write people off, and not campaign in places like Lexington, Greenville and Spartanburg, where lots of white people live."
Ford, whose platform promises to bring back video poker and start a $1 billion Myrtle Beach casino operation as major blocks of a new S.C. economy, said he is counting on what some consider radical ideas to win.
A least one veteran Democrat, though, thinks Ford might turn off some voters with his approach.
"Ford will be one of my favorite characters of all time," said Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, one of the most senior Democrats in the Senate. "(But) his ability and administrative experience is a concern to many of us."
Trust will be a big issue in the race, the candidates agree, as Democrats search for a nominee who can perform well in a general election.
Rex thinks he is that candidate and is in the middle of a 46-day, 46-county tour of South Carolina to shore up support statewide.
"We are going to win it by working every community in every corner of the state," Stokes said.
Sheheen said he, too, is campaigning all over the state, including the places where Republicans are strongest. Sheheen said he has campaigned in Greenville more than 20 times so far, along with other Upstate counties.
As he has traveled the state, Sheheen said he is hopeful about his chances in June and the Democrat's chances November.
People are looking for a change at the state level, including cooperative leadership after almost eight years of battling between Republican Mark Sanford and the GOP-controlled Legislature.
"I hear a lot of frustration with the current leadership of the state, and that bodes well for us (Democrats)," Sheheen said.
Across the state, he said, people are more willing to take a look at Democratic candidates than in past years.
"We are where we want to be in this campaign," Sheheen said.
'MAKE S.C. PROUD AGAIN'
The latest polls of likely voters last month showed Sheheen and Rex each with 16 percent of support and Ford with 12. Rex had the strongest favorable rating among Democrats in that Rasmussen poll with 18 percent.
Sheheen had the highest unfavorable rating among Democrats, at 15 percent very unfavorable. Most people in that poll - 37 percent - were undecided about the Democrat they wanted for governor.
Since that poll, however, Sheheen has won the S.C. chamber of Commerce's Democratic Primary endorsement and that of former Gov. Jim Hodges, the last Democrat to hold the office of governor in the state.
But Rex thinks the race won't be won on money or endorsements.
"South Carolina is looking for someone who can make South Carolina proud again," Rex aide Stokes said. "We have been maligned as a state."