THE ISSUE: GOP presidential race; OUR OPINION: DeMint backing is more than an endorsement
Following this past week's debate in California, some have tried to portray the GOP presidential race as a growing competition between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. While prognostications have been way off the mark before, it is fair to say that Perry has grabbed his share of headlines since a late entry into the race and that Romney since four years ago has been considered a leading contender.
On Wednesday night, the two drew a sharp dividing line over Social Security, which Perry calls a Ponzi scheme that must be scrapped. He contends that telling young Americans that Social Security as it is presently constituted will be there for them is an outright lie. Romney said Wednesday that Social Security cannot go away as a benefit of being an American. It must be repaired.
Romney's position sells well with Americans as a whole. Perry is playing hard to the GOP right. The battle will be interesting: a winner among the population as a whole may be a loser among GOP primary voters.
South Carolina, with its first-in-the-South GOP primary, will be key battleground for deciding who wins the day in the GOP race. South Carolina is a GOP state, but it is solidly Republican as much for those who call themselves independent siding with the GOP as those who claim to be Republican through and through.
Endorsements of key Republicans may become crucial here, as they have been in the past when leaders such as the late Carroll A. Campbell Jr. helped propel the Bushes to key victories.
Some recent Public Policy Polling results offer insight on three key potential endorsements:
-- Voters in South Carolina continue to be closely divided in their feelings about Gov. Nikki Haley, with 41 percent approving and 43 percent disapproving of her. She's proving to have limited appeal to Democrats (an 18/71 spread), and independents split against her as well by a 35/43 margin. BUT she retains strong support from Republicans at a 62/20 spread.
-- Sen. Lindsey Graham's poll numbers reflect his efforts to overcome criticism that he is too moderate. With GOP voters, he's at a 53/32 approval spread, the best he's done in some time. And with Democrats he's at a 25/50 breakdown, worse in a while. Overall Graham's at 41/39.
-- Sen. Jim DeMint easily remains South Carolina's more popular senator at a 47/32 approval rating. His numbers aren't as good as Graham's with either Democrats or independents, but his 73/12 standing with Republicans is far superior and in a state where the plurality of voters do identify with the GOP.
Haley's numbers with Republicans make her endorsement one that will be sought. Any GOP candidate would welcome the support of Graham, who has been on the national stage before as key supporter of 2008 GOP nominee John McCain.
But Romney, Perry and any of the others have to see DeMint as the big prize. He is solid with the GOP establishment in South Carolina and his fight-Obama-and-the-Democrats-on-all-fronts approach is popular with South Carolinians, including many independents.
Not surprisingly, DeMint is often mentioned as a GOP vice presidential candidate, and his insistence that he is not seeking re-election as senator has only added to the theorizing about national ambitions. The senator will be courted and courted strongly. He is likely to play his cards close to the vest until the time is right. If he is seen as delivering South Carolina, his national stature grows, and his power to influence the GOP presidential race grows. If DeMint is interested in higher national office, and the unfolding campaign is likely to make that crystal clear.