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Most Ambitious Pols Waiting Until Sanford Leaves in 2010

Ready. Set. And wait.

With the presidential nominating process preoccupying the minds and pocketbooks of South Carolinians — and likely soaking up both parties’ resources — Palmetto State Republicans and Democrats are looking to Republican Gov. Mark Sanford’s 2010 exit as the debut for perhaps a dozen or more political up-and-comers. [IMGCAP(1)]

Like the previous cycle, both parties agree that it is unlikely any of the state’s six incumbent House Members will face serious challengers during the 2008 election cycle. Of the six, only Rep. John Spratt (D) walked away from Election Day 2006 with less than 60 percent of the vote — with a 57 percent win over a highly touted Republican challenger.

“Like so many things in South Carolina politics, [2008 will be] a politics of stability,” said one state political expert. “There [won’t be] much change.”

Said one GOP source: “We’re pretty secure down here — it’s going to take a lot to beat an incumbent Congressman without a scandal.”

The only soft spot, local media reports suggest, could be Republican Rep. Bob Inglis’ Greenville-area district. Inglis could be vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right, as he was one of 17 Republican House Members who recently voted for a symbolic resolution slamming the White House for sending 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. Inglis’ district gave President Bush 65 percent of its 2004 vote.

First-term Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), too, could face a conservative challenger, bent on attempting to exploit a perceived disdain for the lawmaker known around the state simply as “Lindsey” for his fondness of cable television gab-a-thons and affiliation with the Senate’s moderate “Gang of 14.”

Still, most GOP insiders agree the prospects for a potential Graham challenger would be dismal.

“I’ve got a good feeling he’ll be unopposed” in 2008, said one state GOP operative. “Lindsey’s out front about a lot of things, but in my book he’d be an 800-pound gorilla.”

Graham and Sanford both frequently are mentioned as possible 2008 vice presidential nominees. Such a development, state officials from both parties agree, could accelerate a political line now forming for the state’s 2010 gubernatorial vacancy — a prospective field that includes more than a dozen state House, Senate and former and current state government officials.

The Democratic field alone could number 10 or more, according to one Democratic operative. At the top of the operative’s list is the first-term state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston-area lawyer who won in a district where Democrats are “usually dead in the water.”

“He ran a very disciplined, professional campaign,” the source said. “He raised over $200,000, which is a lot for House race here. And he spent it very well on mail, television and radio.”

Democratic state Reps. Todd Rutherford, Paul Agnew and James Smith also are said to be mulling 2010 gubernatorial bids. Some claim Smith, a military attorney who volunteered for combat duty in Afghanistan, could be a formidable vote-getter in a Republican state that has more than 400,000 veterans.

“Resigning his commission and re-enlisting has gotten him a lot of bipartisan praise,” said one Democratic source.

The state’s Senate also is expected to produce more than its share of candidates for South Carolina’s 2010 gubernatorial free-for-all — candidates who also may opt to fill any vacancies created by a vice presidential nomination of Graham or Sanford.

State Democratic Sens. Joel Lourie, Vincent Sheheen and Brad Hutto are among those mentioned as possible future statewide candidates. Sources say Laurie, an “old-fashioned Democrat” and former state Representative, has proved his moxie in the GOP-leaning state — and in a district emblematic of why Democrats often have difficulty in South Carolina.

“He beat a well-funded Republican candidate that was backed by the governor that ran a slew of ads against Joel,” said a Democratic source. “And he won pretty convincingly.”

State Democrats say the potential pool for statewide candidates during the next two cycles perhaps also will include Jim Rex, the state’s elected education czar, and Inez Tenenbaum, who lost a Senate bid to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) in 2004. Joe Erwin, the state party chairman, also is said to be considering a run.

“Clearly [Erwin] has the ability to do a well-funded campaign,” said a Democratic source.

Katon Dawson, who chairs South Carolina’s Republican Party, says the GOP field for 2010’s gubernatorial contest is dominated by six contenders.

More than three years from Election Day, many consider state Attorney General Henry McMaster as Sanford’s likely GOP successor. Rounding out the party’s field is David Wilkins, a former state Speaker who is the United States ambassador to Canada; Republican Reps. Gresham Barrett and Joe Wilson; and State Sen. Jim Ritchie.

Others say state Treasurer Thomas Revenel (R) and state Rep. Nikki Randhawa Haley (R), could throw their hats in the ring in 2010.

She “beat the longest elected member of the state House of Representatives,” said one GOP source about Haley. “Many see her as one of the up and comers in the state House.”

But with state politics perhaps on hold until 2010, some argue that the parlor game of presidential endorsements could provide an edge to likely candidates who cast their lot with the current field of presidential candidates.

“If you pick the right horse, your stock is raised a bit,” said one state GOP operative.

Says another GOP operative: “Henry McMaster is supporting [Arizona Sen.] John McCain. If John McCain wins, Henry is talked about as the leading candidate for governor in 2010.”

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