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Trey Gowdy kicks off SC’s presidential endorsement race

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, shakes hands with Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing on Capitol Hill in October.
U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-Spartanburg, shakes hands with Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing on Capitol Hill in October. AP

The major S.C. Republican presidential endorsement race is about to take off.

Last week, candidates fought for backers of former GOP White House hopeful Lindsey Graham soon after the U.S. senator from Seneca left the race. And in previous months, Republican candidates have dotted their campaigns with members of the state General Assembly.

Now one of South Carolina’s top Republicans is ready to line up formally behind a candidate.

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of Spartanburg will endorse Florida Sen. Marco Rubio on Tuesday in Clinton, Iowa, the first stop of a two-day swing through the first state to choose presidential favorites, Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant said.

The congressman’s announcement, along with the shrinking field, should lead to decisions by other powerful S.C. Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of North Charleston and Gov. Nikki Haley, who have been described as the “crown jewels” of GOP presidential endorsers.

Gowdy’s backing could help Rubio with conservative voters in Iowa and South Carolina, where the senator is polling third behind New York billionaire Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said.

Gowdy, a former prosecutor, won over GOP supporters nationwide for his leadership of the special House panel on the Benghazi attack that questioned Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton in her role as secretary of state.

“There’s a reason why the first appearance is in Iowa,” said Walter Whetsell, a S.C. political consultant who worked for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign.

And those die-hard conservatives are more likely to go to the polls in the South’s first primary on Feb. 20, Huffmon said.

“Voters who might have bypassed Rubio might give him a second look,” he said. “Hard-core Republicans see Gowdy for standing up against the Clinton machine, and people who respect Gowdy for that will pay attention.”

Gowdy’s endorsement of Rubio has led to speculation about whether Scott, who polls find is among the state’s most popular Republican politicians, will also back the Florida senator.

Scott and Gowdy appeared with Rubio at Upstate stops on Dec. 19 — the first time the pair showed up at an event for an individual White House candidate since the presidential town halls they hosted concluded this month.

The appearance was not a formal sign of support for Rubio, Scott’s campaign said.

Scott will not endorse a White House hopeful until after he and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., host a forum on poverty in Columbia on Jan. 9 that will feature seven presidential candidates, Scott’s campaign said. Rubio is scheduled to attend the event.

Other top S.C. Republicans whose endorsements could help candidates include Graham and U.S. Reps. Jeff Duncan of Laurens and Tom Rice, who comes from a large GOP stronghold in Horry County, Whetsell said.

The intentions from Haley, perhaps the state’s most sought-after endorsement, remain unclear.

The governor, whose popularity has grown with her handling of the Charleston mass shooting this summer, has mentioned that she might back a presidential candidate but has not offered a timetable.

“The governor has a real network,” Whetsell said.

Huffmon said he could see Haley remaining on the sideline with this year’s field, which is larger from four years ago when she endorsed Mitt Romney. The governor also is considered a top choice for vice president.

“She has more to lose,” Huffmon said. “She can say, ‘I had to play stateswoman.’ ”

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