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South Carolina governor still a big catch for GOP hopefuls

  • Story Highlights
  • South Carolina's GOP Gov. Mark Sanford has stayed neutral in presidential race
  • Romney, Giuliani campaigned for Sanford during his 2006 re-election bid
  • Sanford endorsed McCain in 2000
  • South Carolina's Republican primary is January 19
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By Peter Hamby
CNN South Carolina Producer
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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- In South Carolina, the question still lingers: Could an eleventh hour endorsement for president by Mark Sanford, the state's Republican governor, put a GOP hopeful over the top?

An endorsement from South Carolina's GOP Gov. Mark Sanford could boost a candidate's prospects in the state.

Candidates from New Yorker Rudy Giuliani to Tennessean Fred Thompson have sought his backing, but so far he has pledged to stay neutral in this wide-open GOP race.

Still, with one month to go before the Republican primary on January 19, if there's one thing political observers here know about Sanford, it's that he's an independent thinker.

"Gov. Sanford marches to the beat of his own drummer, and usually in a different band as well," said GOP strategist Tucker Eskew.

That's why Republican presidential campaigns in South Carolina are keeping a watchful eye on the governor. Sanford's blessing could provide a last-minute boost to a candidate's prospects in this early-voting state that's picked every eventual GOP nominee since 1980.

"Would we love to have his endorsement?" asked Mike Campbell, the state director for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign. "Absolutely."

The governor has so far avoided the endorsement game by saying he'd rather focus his energies on raising his four young boys. But he's also managed to leave the door open to changing his mind.

"I'm not saying never," Sanford said in an interview with CNN in September. "But I'm pretty effectively saying never. I've held out till this day with a whole lot of knocks on my door. I suspect I'll hang that way through the end."

The knocks on his door have come, to varying degrees, from the campaigns of Huckabee, Giuliani, Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Campaign aides in South Carolina acknowledge privately that they have informally kept in touch with Sanford, either with periodic phone calls directly from their candidate or with friendly reminders from campaign surrogates in Columbia.

"I think any candidate who tells you that they wouldn't like Gov. Sanford's endorsement just isn't telling you the truth," said one of Romney's advisers in the state.

Sanford's nod would mean different things to different candidates. For Huckabee, a nod from Sanford could firm up his surging, but still under-funded campaign.

Sanford would round out a gubernatorial trifecta for Huckabee: The Arkansas governor already has endorsements from former Gov. David Beasley as well as from the wife and son of the late former governor, Carroll Campbell.

For both Romney and Giuliani, candidates from blue states, Sanford could provide a bit of southern-twanged credibility. Both candidates campaigned for Sanford during his re-election bid in 2006.

Rumors that Sanford will endorse Giuliani have been especially rampant, in part because Giuliani's deputy communications director Jason Miller has strong ties to the governor. He ran Sanford's re-election campaign in 2006.

The former mayor also went out of his way to laud Sanford at a recent campaign stop, praising his "fiscal discipline" and telling an audience, "Your governor, he's done a very good job."

For Thompson, who plays up his southern roots on the campaign trail and shares many of Sanford's small government views, having the governor by his side down the stretch could perhaps push voters to give the laid back Thompson a second look, especially in a state his campaign sees as a must-win.

Thompson had a photo-op and a private meeting with Sanford in June before he officially entered the presidential race. The State newspaper in Columbia said that this joint appearance was "sure to raise eyebrows."

One campaign that hasn't kept the lines open to Sanford is that of Sen. John McCain, the candidate Sanford endorsed in 2000 when the Arizona Republican first ran for president.

At the time, Sanford was a U.S. representative. Sanford co-chaired McCain's South Carolina steering committee that year along with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

In an interview with the Washington Post in May, Sanford said endorsing anyone other than McCain would be "a slap in his face," but McCain said he hasn't even spoken with Sanford this cycle.

"I haven't talked to the governor," McCain said after a campaign stop in November. "We're friends, and I respect him enormously. One thing I know about the governor is that he'll take his own good time in making a decision."

A McCain adviser confirmed those comments. "There was an early on effort made when McCain's strategy was to lock up everybody to show an aura of inevitability, but when it became apparent Sanford was not going to endorse, those efforts cooled," the adviser said, noting that McCain has more statewide endorsements than any of his rivals.

Endorsements make headlines, but some observers question how much a blessing from Sanford would count in the long run. The Sanford name certainly has cachet nationally: Some observers see Sanford as a rising Republican star, a principled, staunch fiscal conservative who held firm against the Democratic tide in 2006 to win re-election. But Sanford was also named one of America's worst governors by Time magazine in 2005. Time and CNN are owned by Time Warner.

"His endorsement won't carry as much weight as the media and pundits make it out to be," Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said, noting that "the public of South Carolina might take it to heart."

Given his history of antagonizing the state's Republican establishment with his crusade against pork barrel spending, there's also the chance Sanford's endorsement could also be a double-edged sword within the state.

"Part of the thing about getting his endorsement is that you might get some of his supporters, but you'd also get all of his enemies, who are Republicans," said one longtime South Carolina Republican strategist, who is not affiliated with a candidate and requested anonymity.

Ultimately, said the McCain adviser, it's up to Sanford to determine how valuable his endorsement would be. "If it's a press conference endorsement and he walks away and doesn't do anything, its doesn't do anything for me," he said. "If he gets out there and works and spends a little political capital, the endorsement could be significant." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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