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Money, lack of Republican star temper 2012 race in S.C.

The 2012 race for president is coming. It will just be slower to unfold.

At this point in the 2008 presidential race, eventual GOP nominee John McCain had hired S.C. staff members for the state's crucial first-in-the-South primary.

But candidates will be slower out of the gate in the 2012 race, political consultants and experts say.

The early start to the 2008 campaign put pressure on candidates to raise more money. This year, potential candidates also are waiting to see if a heavyweight enters the GOP field.

There will be other changes in the 2012 races as well, including later primaries.

Two years ago, states risked penalties from political parties as they raced each other to vote earliest, with the Iowa caucuses -- traditionally held first -- occurring just days after New Year's.

However, both parties recognize 2008's front-loaded primary schedule was a problem and, as a result, have set a later 2012 schedule, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.

"Just about everybody on both sides swore 'never again,'" Sabato said. "It was absurd. Everyone saw that."

South Carolina traditionally has been a must-win state in GOP presidential politics, with the winner of the state's primary going on to win the Republican nomination in every cycle since 1980. The state is slated to vote in February of next year.

While more than a year away, a number of potential Republican candidates already have visited the state. In the past year, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania all have visited South Carolina.

However, the would-be GOP field is waiting to see if either of two tea party darlings declares they will run -- 2008 vice presidential nominee Palin or dark horse U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of Greenville. The entry of either would completely change the S.C. primary, experts said.

DeMint told Fox News Channel last month he currently is "totally out" of running for president. However, he endorsed candidates and donated campaign money across the country in 2010, resulting in speculation that his eyes are on a horizon broader than South Carolina.

Palin also spent the past year endorsing candidates -- including Gov.-elect Nikki Haley -- but has yet to commit to a 2012 campaign.

"There is no question that people are looking at Sarah Palin as the front-runner," said Walter Whetsell, a Lexington-based consultant who has yet to sign on with a GOP campaign but expects he could do so soon. "She's in no hurry. Because of that, everyone is going to hold their cards close to the vest."

McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona, started campaigning so early in the 2008 cycle that his campaign ran out of money the summer before the start of primary season. Palin is the only candidate who can raise money at will, Whetsell said, adding other candidates learned from McCain's lesson. If DeMint enters the GOP race, Whetsell said, other Republicans likely would skip South Carolina, ceding the Palmetto State to its homegrown candidate.

Part of the reason the 2012 election cycle will start slower is that -- unlike 2008 -- there is an incumbent, Democrat Barack Obama, who will run for re-election.

"When there is an incumbent, usually it gets started later," Sabato said. Otherwise, "you can spend your way through everything you've got before you even get to the real (general election) contest."

November's historic Republican victories also likely is delaying the entry of 2012 candidates, Whetsell said, as GOP politicos across the country focus instead on helping their party's November winners transition into office.

Still, most S.C. consultants expect the Republican campaigns will be up and running by the time of a nationally broadcast GOP debate set for May in Greenville.