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DeMint will prioritize viability and economic issues, not immigration, say S.C. GOP operatives

MahurinImmigration_Thumb_2091.jpg
MahurinImmigration_Thumb_2091.jpg

In the South Carolina GOP presidential primary, no endorsement is considered more important than that of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Slate and former Washington Independent reporter Dave Weigel identifies him as one of the “Three Kingmakers” in the early GOP contests, along with Iowa’s Bob Vander Plaats and New Hampshire’s Ovide Lamontagne.

In order to leverage as much power in the primary as he possibly can, DeMint has asked South Carolina politicians and political operatives to “keep the powder dry,” hold off on endorsing a presidential candidate and let the competition between the hopefuls play out. In an interview with the National Journal, DeMint said, “What we’re doing is encouraging people to wait. Not jump in early based on friendships or whatever.”

DeMint and other conservative leaders — including Iowa Rep. Steve King, one of the leading immigration enforcement hawks in Congress — will be hosting a presidential forum in Columbia, S.C., on September 5. DeMint says the purpose of the forum is to “create a unified front,” with GOP leaders taking the time to carefully scrutinize and then hopefully unite around a single candidate.

Although the question of which issues these leaders will choose to care most about when the nominee is finally chosen isn’t answered yet, both the location of the event (in South Carolina, a state with a new “papers, please” immigration law) and its hosts suggest that immigration might be a crucial topic.

King and DeMint both initially achieved a national profile in the conservative movement through the immigration issue. In the House, King championed the effort to repeal the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship out of fear of the so-called “anchor babies,” children born of undocumented parents, and has compared undocumented immigrants to cattle in defense of building an electric border fence.

DeMint had a similarly immigration-related launch for his national profile when he led conservative Republicans in opposition to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s 2007 immigration reform bill, ultimately resulting in its demise. He also endorsed Mitt Romney over John McCain in the 2008 election in part because of the latter’s moderation on immigration.

Yet GOP operatives say that the primary will be as much about the ability to defeat President Obama as it will be about rigid conservative policy ideas.

“In the past the South Carolina primary has been based around finding the most conservative candidate who can win,” says Barry Wynn, a former chair of the South Carolina Republican Party. He points out that George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and McCain, all considered establishment candidates with moderate records on several issues including immigration, were all chosen by South Carolina to be the nominee.

“I think one of the things that people misunderstand about South Carolina is that it’s not aligning candidates with the primary voters,” Wynn says. He says Dole and McCain in particular are good examples of candidates that deviated from an absolutist stance on certain issues and were accepted by South Carolina voters because of electoral pragmatism.

Wynn also rejects claims that the tea party will seriously change this formula: “I think history is a better guide than trying to extrapolate about the future. Every primary that we’ve been involved with down here people have said this time it’s different, and it never is.”

Moreover, Wynn adds, the forum itself is not likely to dwell on immigration, because DeMint himself is currently focused almost exclusively on economic issues and the national debt. DeMint has made supporting “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” the pledge that any increase in the federal debt ceiling must pass Congress with a budget balanced amendment (which requires a two-thirds majority to approve it), necessary for any presidential candidate who wants his support.

Lin Bennett, the chair of the Charleston County, S.C., Republican Party, says she agrees that the economy will dominate other issues like immigration. “[Immigration] was a very popular issue with the voters in South Carolina,” she says. “I think it will play a part, but based on what I’m hearing, voters are more concerned with spending issues and debt issues.”

But she adds that an outright dismissal of the immigration issue from a presidential candidate won’t be tolerated by primary voters. “I don’t think they will forget that, I think they will use it as a criteria.”

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