Politics & Government

Governor's race a wide-open 2-party affair

A year from now, South Carolina voters will choose a new governor.

The race for the state's top job has not been this wide open since 1994.

That was the last time South Carolina replaced a term-limited governor. Gov. Mark Sanford, who was elected in 2002, cannot seek a third term.

Political observers expect tense, competitive primaries among both Democrats and Republicans. Three or more candidates in each party could have the money and staying power to last until June.

With such a wide field, expect the unexpected, say those watching this race take shape.

The 1994 governor's race is instructive.

In February of that year, Republican state Rep. David Beasley of Darlington was polling at 12 percent behind former Republican congressmen Tommy Hartnett and Arthur Ravenel of Charleston.

Among the Democrats, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was leading Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore. Both polled ahead of Republicans eight months before election day and both were raising more money.

None of it mattered.

Beasley blasted past Harnett and Ravenel to win the Republican primary. He then bested Theodore to become the state's next governor.

A year from Election Day there are 11 candidates running for governor - six Democrats and five Republicans.

And here are five variables that will help shape the race.

AN UNWIELDY FIELD

Not since that 1994 election cycle have South Carolinians seen such a large, unwieldy field of candidates including several with the financing and support to make it to the summer's primaries.

The state's electorate could be split in new and unexpected ways, creating the opportunity for a dark horse candidate.

Unpredictability will run high and candidates will likely throw sharp elbows to attempt to distinguish themselves from the pack. Look for some behind-the-scenes dirt-digging by campaigns, fireworks and lots of twists and turns.

On the Democratic side the candidates are:

- Former lobbyist Dwight Drake of Columbia

- Charleston pastor Amos Elliott

- State Sen. Robert Ford, Charleston

- Charleston attorney Mullins McLeod

- S.C. Education Superintendent Jim Rex of Winnsboro

- State Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Camden

On the Republican side, the candidates are:

- U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett of Westminster

- Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer of Greenville

- Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau

- State Rep. Nikki Haley of Lexington

- Attorney General Henry McMaster of Columbia

Karen Floyd, chairwoman of the state GOP, said she's not concerned about a crowded field.

Instead, she views it as one of the rare positive result of the state's economic woes and a likely boon for Republicans.

"People are frightened across the state because of the tremendously high unemployment and some of the other challenges we're facing as a state," Floyd said.

THE ECONOMY

While the crippling recession may technically be nearing its end, South Carolina will slowly crawl out during the next several years, according to state economists.

South Carolinians' gubernatorial pick will help navigate the state through that recovery and spearhead efforts to attract new industry.

Candidates disagree on how to aid South Carolina. Ford, for example, wants to revive video poker. Haley wants to improve the climate for small businesses.

Look for candidates likening themselves to past governors known for success in economic development and job force readiness including Carroll Campbell, a Republican, and Dick Riley, a Democrat.

THE COMPETITION

Democrats say the pendulum will swing in their favor in November, for the first time since Democrat Jim Hodges was elected in 1998.

"Democrats have a better than even chance next year," said Bud Ferillo, a Columbia-based Democratic activist. "The resurgence of the Democratic party is inevitable and under way."

Among the evidence, Ferillo said, is an energized African-American base that trends Democratic, new S.C. residents who tend to be more progressive and the ebbing of social issues and religious issues such as abortion, which have been powerful vote-getters for Republicans.

THE SANFORD EFFECT

Following revelations of a secret trip to Argentina, Sanford looked like an inevitable drag on his party, certain to hurt Republican's 2010 chances.

Questions raised by the media about his use of the state plane and other state resources resulting in a State Ethics Commission investigation, have further soiled his name.

Voters will be examining the candidates for character flaws.

THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR

Campaigns may be built on dreams and ideas. But they're fueled by cash.

Republican and Democratic strategists agree that the poor economy will handicap candidates' fundraising.

So far, two of the 10 candidates, McMaster and Barrett have banked $1 million each. Both candidates relied on transfers from reelection campaigns to reach those totals.

Look for fundraising totals during the next few quarters to discern who are the true front-runners. Also, look for candidates to flood your home's mailbox and e-mail inbox with requests for cash.

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