There truly has never been a lamer duck than Mark Sanford. Every tear he sheds is being weighed for 2012 implications, along with every South Carolina stimulus dollar he sends to places like Remote, Ore. And now we’ve officially started the clock in the hunt for the next governor of South Carolina, who will take office around the time Sanford officially announces his run for president in January 2011. Don’t worry, Remote, you’ll see more than enough of him on Fox News until then.

The field is far from complete — we are at least one McCandidate short — but the first incumbent-free gubernatorial race in 16 years has led a handful of candidates to get in early. Real early. The Republicans have a clear leader board that should give any second-tier candidate pause, while the Democratic field essentially stands open to all takers.

It speaks volumes about the relative powerlessness of the governor that, aside from that special $740 million, the only news Sanford is getting these days revolves around what he’s going to do once he is no longer burdened with his office. That’s not to say that the governor can’t get things done for the state, but Sanford has always been more interested in sending a message than notching successes on his desk.

On the three-legged stool representing the branches of government in the Palmetto State, the governor is that leg you’re scared to lean too hard on.

“This is a state where there’s really no such thing as gubernatorial power,” says David Mann, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. “It’s always been a legislature-dominated state.”

Until the 1930s, the governor was only allowed to hold a single two-year term. After that, it was a single four-year term until a constitutional change in 1980 that allowed a second four years.

When announcing his campaign in March 2001 (yes, it should be noted that Sanford was already in the race at this point), he said he was looking to get something accomplished — to move the ball down the field. Historians can judge his success, but the candidates this year will not only be running to accomplish something, they’ll be running to offer something different.

Playing the Fields

Two Republicans have officially announced their campaigns: Congressman Gresham Barrett, who has been representing the western part of the state (Anderson and Greenwood) since 2002, and Furman University political science professor Brent Nelsen, who is making his first run for public office. Other potential cage match participants circling the ring are Attorney General Henry McMaster, Lt. Gov. André Bauer, and state Sens. Larry Grooms of Berkeley County and Chip Campsen, who represents coastal voters in East Cooper.

For the Democrats, state Sens. Vincent Sheheen of Camden and Robert Ford of Charleston have announced their intentions. West Ashley’s Rev. Amos Elliott and Charleston lawyer Mullins McLeod have also entered the race. State Rep. Harry Ott of St. Matthews is seriously considering entering the race, and state Superintendent Jim Rex is being encouraged to run by party members.

If there are any names in those two paragraphs that you don’t recognize, well, that’s likely their first campaign hurdle.

“Some of these guys may be known in a region, but they aren’t known in the rest of the state,” says Mann.

Two potential candidates have cleared that hurdle: McMaster and Bauer have each been elected to statewide office twice.

Everybody else is going to have to work the ground, and fancy ad campaigns aren’t going to do it, Mann says.

“In this state, in order to win you’ve got to go to every corner store, to every mall,” he says.

Campaigns are starting much too early, but it’s understandable.

“A lot of these guys are going to need the extra time,” he says, pointing to Sheheen. “How many people from Beaufort have even heard of Camden?”

Fund-raising is also going to be important, primarily as a barometer that pundits and the media use to gauge viability, says Jeri Cabot, who also teaches political science at CofC.

“The early bird is going to have the advantage of tapping those deep pockets early,” she says.

Name recognition and fund-raising make the triangle of Barrett, Bauer, and McMaster a tough one for tier two Republicans to crack.

“It’s likely to be one of those three,” Cabot says.

Democrats are at a perceived disadvantage in this race; Republicans have won five of the last six gubernatorial elections. The Dems will likely be promising to change politics as usual, Cabot says, but the party should also seek out a charismatic and dynamic candidate who can steal the attention from the Red State home team.

“At this point in the campaign, it’s all about personality,” she says.

Virgin Territory

The experienced candidates have been in this game long enough to know how it’s played. Barrett has hired key election staff and is pulling in that early campaign money, getting prospective donors and supporters off the fence before the primary candidate crowd can balloon. Sheheen knows he’s got to do some traveling. When announcing his proposed stimulus fix, he didn’t go home to Camden; he came to Charleston.

But this campaign will be the first political test for three other candidates — a test that will involve more than a million voters before it’s over. McLeod, a Charleston attorney, isn’t having any of that foolishness about having to be Sen. Somebody to get elected.

“I think there is ample evidence of people coming from the private sector in their first run for public office and running for governor,” he says.

The entire field of fresh meat tends to bank on frustrations with Columbia politicians. Rev. Elliott points to problems like education, poverty, and the stimulus fighting and wonders what all that experience in the Statehouse has done for the state.

“Judgement will beat experience every time,” he says.

You’d expect Nelson, who has taught politics for more than two decades, to be skeptical of his own chances, but he’s making the same bet on voter disillusionment.

“I’m counting on the backlash to politics as usual,” he says.

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