2016 presidential race gets off to its SC start

05/03/2013 12:00 AM

05/02/2013 11:27 PM

A little more than a year after the last presidential primary in South Carolina, the next one gets an unofficial start Friday night.

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – two presumed 2016 White House hopefuls – are the keynote speakers at the state’s annual Democratic and Republican fundraising dinners in Columbia.

Their Friday night appearances enhance the state’s stature as the home of the first presidential primary in the South, political observers said.

With Biden as the speaker, Democrats sold a record 1,000-plus tickets for the S.C. Democratic Party’s Jefferson Jackson Dinner at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

The party expects to double last year’s money haul from the fundraiser, S.C. Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian said. Ticket sales are used to help pay for party operations and campaigns.

While a U.S. senator, Biden spoke at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in 2005, the year after Republican George W. Bush won a second presidential term. Biden sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 but, after a poor finish in Iowa, dropped out before the S.C. primary. However, he went on to become Barack Obama’s running mate.

Now in his second term as vice president, Biden, 70, is speaking to the state’s Democrats again in the year after a president has won a second four-year stint.

But don’t look for more coincidences, Harpootlian said.

Instead, S.C. Democrats are welcoming an old friend in Biden, who vacations at Kiawah Island and wants to honor U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s 20 years in Congress, Harpootlian said. Biden will attend the Columbia Democrat’s annual fish fry, near Williams-Brice Stadium, after the dinner.

“This is not a gauge for 2016,” Harpootlian said.

But not everyone thinks that Biden’s visit is just about honoring Clyburn and getting some fried fish.

Despite former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s lead in early polls, Biden “keeps himself as an option in 2016 by attending (the dinner),” University of South Carolina political scientist Mark Tompkins said.

S.C. Democratic political consultant Lachlan McIntosh said Biden could not ignore the state’s importance in the presidential race. “I don’t think the vice president is the last Democrat coming to South Carolina thinking about running for president,” he added.

Republican presidential prospects already have announced their plans to visit the Palmetto State. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is headlining a S.C. GOP fundraiser in June.

But first, Cruz, 42, will speak to the state party at its Silver Elephant Dinner at the S.C. State Fairgrounds Friday night. Just three months into his first Senate term, Cruz reportedly is thinking hard about a White House bid.

The Texas attorney and law professor has strong Tea Party support. His U.S. Senate bid also was bolstered by an early endorsement by then-U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-Greenville. DeMint left the Senate in January to become the head of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

“He’s a hot story that serves well for the party,” USC’s Tompkins said of Cruz.

The S.C. GOP wanted a keynote speaker who was a rising star with strong conservative credentials like DeMint, who will be honored at the dinner, state chairman Chad Connelly said.

“Especially having lost the last national election, we wanted someone to talk about how we can win the next national election,” Connelly said.

Cruz has not always played nice in the Senate – drawing rebukes from both parties.

But, said Tompkins, “Republicans love outsiders now.”

As his White House chatter gets louder, the Silver Elephant dinner allows Cruz “to try out applause lines and get credit for being a big draw,” said the political scientist.

Cruz is the second young, rising Republican senator to speak at the annual state GOP dinner in two years.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential GOP presidential candidate in 2016, headlined the 2012 event. Both national newcomers, who appeal to the party’s Tea Party wing, are trying to prove themselves before their party’s 2016 nomination fight.

“There’s not a logical (Republican) candidate that the party establishment says, ‘It’s their turn,’ ” S.C. GOP consultant Walter Whetsell said of 2016. “If you wanted to go the establishment route, who would they go to? There are no John McCains or Bob Doles.”

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