Santorum staffing up in South Carolina

Rick Santorum is ramping up his 2016 efforts in South Carolina.

Washington (CNN)Rick Santorum is expanding his nonprofit to the all-important early primary state of South Carolina, a move that's certain to heighten speculation over his potential presidential run.

South Carolina GOP strategist Jon Parker confirmed to CNN he plans to head up the South Carolina operation for Patriot Voices, Santorum's issue advocacy group.
"Our goal is to spread his conservative message through the state — his ideas for tackling middle-class issues, working-class issues," he said.
    Parker said the group wants to reacquaint South Carolinians with Santorum's record, and build connections for him in the state.
    "We want to share his message with as many groups and activists throughout the state as we can, and of course, remind voters of some of his accomplishments," he said.
    South Carolina, with its heavily social conservative voting base, would be key to Santorum's chances in the GOP primary if he decides to run. He finished third in the state in 2012 with 17% support, behind eventual nominee Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who came in first.
    But this cycle, the competition for the state is shaping up to be much fiercer. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham took a step towards a run this week with the launch of a committee to explore the prospect. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who took second place in the 2008 South Carolina primary, is also contemplating another bid.
    Indeed, a recent survey of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters, conducted by GOP pollster Gravis, found Santorum tied with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the bottom of the pack, with 4% support. That survey found Romney leading the field, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush coming in second.
    Parker's expected move raised questions about the plans of his current employer, veteran GOP strategist Richard Quinn — who Santorum met with during a previous visit to the state. But Quinn tells CNN he's behind Graham all the way, if he runs.
    "I'm all for Lindsey, and if he decides to run I'm working for him," he said, and pegged it at a "better than even chance he'll do it."
    Graham has told him he plans to make a decision in April or June, and that he's planning visits to Iowa and New Hampshire to test the waters there. Quinn also said he's heard there are "a number of national major donors" who would back Graham if he runs, because of his strength on foreign policy, which Quinn said will be the "central issue of this cycle."
    "The world has changed since the last presidential cycle and people are definitely concerned about what president is qualified to keep them safe, what president is qualified to win the war against radical Islam," he said.
    "Of all the candidates that are looking at this, Lindsey's got the greatest depth of knowledge on these issues."
    But Parker's split with Quinn underscores the challenge facing the potential GOP presidential contenders as they jockey for finite staff and resources in the three pivotal early primary states.
    Quinn insisted that "everybody in South Carolina's gonna be with Lindsey if he runs."
    Pressed on whether Santorum's planned hire there suggests there may not be as much unity in the South Carolina political class as Graham might hope, however, Quinn struck a delicate balance. He argued that while Patriot Voices "could be a precursor to a presidential effort," it's technically not the same as a campaign apparatus.
    If Graham doesn't run, Quinn still sees him as a kingmaker in the key state.
    "If Lindsey doesn't do it, his support, and the support of his team, is going to be highly sought after," he said.