Jim Rex, possibly the best-positioned Democrat in the state for a gubernatorial run, has launched an exploratory campaign for just such a race. In a release to supporters, Rex provided a host of familiar candidate buzz words.

“(Voters) want jobs and a growing economy, a government committed to accountability and living within its means, a state committed to improving schools, and leaders who will protect our values,” Rex said.

State Attorney General Henry McMaster, a Republican, made a similar move earlier this week. It signals that the campaign season is certainly under way, says Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

“The campaign is on,” he says, noting we’re in phase one. “Until the legislature comes back in January, the focus is to raise the money to run the campaign.”

And this fundraising period will be critical for Democrats, who are sure to be at a monetary disadvantage as we move closer to November 2010. Rex’s potential entrance in the race is a recognition that there really isn’t a front-runner for the Democratic nomination. State Sen. Vincent Sheheen and Charleston attorney Mullins McLeod have been actively campaigning, but neither has the statewide name recognition that Rex offers. West Ashley pastor Amos Elliott and state Sen. Robert Ford have also announced their candidacy, but have done little fundraising to suggest they’re on the campaign trail.

Rex also has statewide campaign experience, Graham says, as well as some on-the-job credibility managing a sizeable portion of the state budget.

“In effect, the superintendent is an assistant governor who plays a key policy role,” he says.

Rex’s three years as state Education Superintendent comes with some baggage. While he will point to any improvement to test scores or graduation rates, opponents are sure to cherry pick even the smallest of student slips as an indication of failure.

“It will be up to (Rex) to demonstrate progress,” Graham says. “It will be up to his opponents to demonstrate where more progress has to be made.”

What this does ensure is that, in a time when jobs and business weigh heavy in any discussion, education is sure to get some additional time in campaign chatter.

“I think we’ll have this talked about heavily in the Democratic Primary,” Graham says.

Some candidates have moved well-beyond exploring a run. Republican Congressman Gresham Barrett has been campaigning since March. He’ll be touring the Medical University of South Carolina here in Charleston this afternoon. Other Republicans in the field include state Sen. Larry Grooms and state Rep. Nikki Haley.

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