ABC News’ Michael Falcone and Gregory Simmons report:
PROSPERITY, S.C. — The head of the South Carolina Republican Party doesn’t mince words.
His goals for the current presidential election cycle are clear. He wants the candidates to come early and often to his state, he thinks the Tea Party will have as much, if not more, influence in 2012 as they did in 2010, and he’s serious about protecting South Carolina’s coveted “first in the South” primary status. Since 1980, the Republican presidential nominee has won every contested South Carolina primary.
Connelly, who took over as chairman of the state’s Republican Party in May, has his work cut out for him as the Palmetto State counts down to its nominating contest, now less than six months away.
Chairman Connelly, who is also an author and motivational speaker, spoke with ABC News on the eve of a Labor Day forum that will bring nearly all of the presidential candidates to the state capitol, Columbia, to appear in front of a panel of questioners that includes Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a popular figure here and a national Tea Party icon.
Q: How important is Monday’s Palmetto Freedom Forum and what do you think South Carolina voters are expecting to hear from the candidates?
Connelly: “Senator DeMint is highly respected, highly regarded, held in high esteem all over the country and of course Republican voters in South Carolina really look to him. I think he wanted to create an event that was a little bit of a non-debate debate where voters really got to know the candidates. He wanted to create a situation where you could really ask questions and connect with those guys and I think that’s what people are really expecting in South Carolina is a chance to really get to know the candidates. Look, for the past 30 years we’ve picked the right nominee — we have picked the eventual nominee for the Republican side and that’s a pretty good track record and so the candidates come here with the expectation this is a small state, it’s a relatively inexpensive state to campaign in. You really can get to know and connect with the voters.”
Q: Which of the 2012 candidates has the upper hand in South Carolina right now?
Connelly: “I think it’s early — I really do. There’s no question when somebody pops in like Governor Perry did, it creates a stir and there’s a buzz going on. But, you know, Congresswoman Bachmann had that early on when she came out — she created a stir and drew big crowds. And Senator Santorum’s been all over the state. You know when you see all that stuff happening. When they put time and energy into the state I think you’re going to see them get a boost.”
Q: Rick Perry has been surging in national and state polls since he jumped into the presidential race a few weeks ago. What do conservatives in South Carolina think of the Texas governor?
Connelly: “There’s no question he has created quite a stir. And he’s done it quickly. I think that he’s probably had a buzz created probably because of the southern Texas Governor thing — the ability to connect and relate to people. And so it looks like conservatives really like Governor Perry. I think it’s early. It’s really early in the entire process but there’s no question Governor Perry’s created a quick stir in South Carolina.”
Q: Gov. Perry’s lead in the polls has come at the expense of Mitt Romney’s once front-runner status. What is the view of conservatives toward the former Massachusetts governor?
Connelly: “I think what people here are looking for from Governor Romney is a lot of visits. You know, get to the state, get here early, get here often and really get to know people. There’s no doubt about it — he’s got some residual name I.D. from four years ago, but so far he hasn’t been here a lot. And so conservatives are looking are looking for him to come to the state and get to know people and articulate his message. There’s no question he’s had a good reception here, but there’s no question hasn’t been here as often as conservatives are expecting him to be here.”
Q: As Gov. Perry draws more support he’s also drawing more attacks from his rivals. Some have been questioning whether he is a “true” conservative. Do you think he is?
Connelly: “I don’t know his whole record but he appears to be a conservative to me. I really haven’t heard people say he’s not the real deal. I know there’s stuff floating around about this vote or that vote or this thing he supported in Texas and I think that’s what he’s answering on the campaign trail. But I don’t hear people saying, ‘no he’s not a true conservative.’”
Q: What happens if Sarah Palin gets into the race?
Connelly: “Who knows. In some ways it’s early but in other ways it’s getting kind of late if you don’t have a ground game in a place like South Carolina. … We do pick presidents, we pick the nominees and some of these nominees have a lot of good politico folks on the ground working hard, talking to the folks there, the activists in the county. If Governor Palin gets in the race I don’t know if it’s a game changer but it certainly shuffles the deck.”
Q: Do you think the Tea Party is going to be as influential in the 2012 race as they were in 2010 midterm elections?
Connelly: “I don’t know what Tea Party means to people across the country but in South Carolina the Tea Party really is made up of Democrats, Independents and Republicans who think the country’s on the wrong track. And so the Tea Party here, in large, part has been disaffected voters — maybe mostly Republicans — folks who kind of stood on the sidelines and let things happen. But most of those people have integrated into our party structure. They’ve become involved and influential. They’ve won some county seats. I think the Tea Party is going to have a big part in South Carolina politics. … I think they’re going to have as much of an influence in 2012 as they had in 2010 — if not more — because they’re involved in the party structure more now.”
Q: Mike Huckabee recently warned that if Republicans “get so adamant that they will only support a candidate that believes everything on their checklist, they will re-elect Obama.” Do you think he has a point?
Connelly: “Electability is something we talk about on a regular basis. … One good thing about our state is we have a good blend. … South Carolina is great bellwether state for electing electability — for picking the right nominee that can get elected nationwide because we have representatives from all three parts of the Republican Party. So, I think he’s probably right. I’m not sure that we’re looking for purity out of any of the persons who can win. I believe any of our candidates are better than the person in the White House right now. But we do want to elect somebody who can beat Barack Obama.”
Q: Do you get the sense we’ve entered a more intense phase of the primary cycle, one in which we’re going to see more Republican-on-Republican attacks as the candidates try to differentiate themselves?
Connelly: “For some reason politics is a blood sport and it seems like the primary season leaves us a little bit bloodied and battered. But we have had a great way in South Carolina of coming together around a candidate that was the nominee and getting behind them and coalescing the efforts. And so I think that will happen here. These next five months will be interesting and exciting.”