Talk to enough people around this key primary state and you'll learn two lessons, over and over again. One is that there is absolutely, positively no unity among Republicans about any presidential candidate or potential candidate; there's no such thing as a frontrunner. The other is that in the back of their minds, many Republicans are hoping that somewhere, somehow, a superhero candidate will swoop down out of the sky and rescue them from their current lackluster presidential field. They know it's a fantasy, but they still hope.
It's not just dissatisfaction with the field -- Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson -- that took part in the first GOP debate on Thursday night. Even if the other would-be candidates -- Mike Huckabee , Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, and Donald Trump -- had all been onstage with the others Thursday, there still would have been plenty of unhappiness among South Carolina's political professionals, activists, and ordinary people who just follow politics. Seeing each candidate as flawed, they focus on the unattainables -- Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio -- who they believe might bring a fresh face and new hope to the GOP.
Of course, each of the unattainables is so new in his job -- governor of New Jersey, chairman of the House Budget Committee, senator from Florida -- that they could not easily drop their responsibilities and run for president, especially since they haven't been building campaigns for months, as most of the other would-be candidates have. And of course, if any of the unattainables actually ran, the dissatisfied might quickly develop doubts about him, too. But at least they'd be new doubts, rather than the old, lingering ones about some of the current candidates.
All this has led to intense frustration among Republicans in South Carolina -- and around the country, too. They believe Barack Obama is eminently beatable, even after the recent triumph of killing Osama bin Laden. When his bin Laden bounce settles down, it's likely that Obama will return to the mid-40s job approval range. And yet Republicans are fighting the idea, heard not just in the press but among some of their own colleagues, that a president in the mid-40s can't be defeated. It doesn't make sense to them. So they hope for some new way out of the problem.
The one candidate already in the field who is generating excitement as a genuinely new face is Herman Cain, the talk radio host and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. It's not because Cain is young -- at 65, he is the oldest candidate in the field, aside from Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich -- but because he brings a businessman's credibility to a race dominated by economic issues; has a gift for commonsense talk; and does it all with a little showmanship (along with some startling weaknesses in the area of foreign policy and national security). After Thursday's debate, when Frank Luntz conducted a focus group discussion for Fox News, Cain was the big winner.
Now another possible candidate, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, appears to believe he can be the new face Republican primary voters are seeking. Huntsman, who just a week ago returned to the United States from his Obama-appointed post as ambassador to China, is moving at warp speed to set up a campaign. After meeting with potential donors in New York, his first primary-state stop was South Carolina, where he met with Governor Nikki Haley and other top politicos and gave a non-political graduation speech at the University of South Carolina. Huntsman has already assembled a team, made up in large part of the advisers who worked for John McCain in the last election.
If voters perceive a McCain connection, that could be bad news for Huntsman. By and large, Republicans in South Carolina have no nostalgia for the 2008 McCain candidacy. They will always respect McCain for his military service, and of course McCain won the South Carolina primary, but many look back on his '08 presidential run with regret; some will tell you they held their nose to vote for him in the general election. Huntsman's opponents will try to pigeonhole him as a civil-unions-loving, cap-and-trading moderate. If they succeed, and a man with a solid record of governing becomes known as McCain without the heroism -- well, that wouldn't help.
In the end, it's always possible Republicans will return to their old habits and nominate the candidate who finished second the last time around. In this race, that could mean either Romney or Huckabee, who virtually tied for runner-up in the 2008 primaries. At the moment, Romney is pretty much nowhere in South Carolina -- the enormous amount of money he spent in the state in '08 has bought him very little loyalty -- and has not put a lot of effort into Iowa, either. Huckabee, still doing his program for Fox News and radio commentary for ABC, is giving off signals that he will run but hasn't yet made a final decision.
One thing is certain: No previously-unknown savior is going to descend from the sky to save Republicans. If they are to defeat Barack Obama, they'll have to do it with someone from their extended field today.