White House hopefuls eye York County as primary nears

The political trail in York County is about to heat up after a relatively calm summer.

A pair of Republican presidential hopefuls plan visits this month while two Democrats are expected to hold events of their own soon after. The increased activity is a sign the race for the White House is picking up speed, particularly as the primary schedule takes shape.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas will speak at Thursday's Too restaurant on Tuesday in his first visit to York County since the campaign began. One week later, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will throw out the first pitch at a Charlotte Knights baseball game, marking his second visit to Fort Mill.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Joe Biden's camp has told Democrats he'll be here in the fall. Party members also are abuzz with talk that Sen. Hillary Clinton will open a campaign headquarters in downtown Rock Hill, possibly as early as September. Neither campaign would confirm specific plans on Friday.

A front-loaded calendar

The primary calendar is giving South Carolina voters more prominence than ever in picking the next president. This week, the state GOP announced its primary will be on Jan. 19, an earlier-than-expected date the party hopes will protect its first-in-the-South status -- and bring the candidates here often.

"They're going to be all over the place," said York County Chairman Glenn McCall. "After Labor Day, they'll start hitting it hard. We're hoping to get our fair share."

Democrats plan to hold their vote Jan. 29. The way the schedule eventually could play out, Iowa Republicans and Democrats would caucus in December, New Hampshire's Democratic and Republican primaries would be Jan. 8, and Nevada Democrats would caucus Jan. 19, the day of the S.C. Republican primary.

That would leave 10 days between Nevada and the S.C. Democratic primary -- a period in which candidates would likely shower attention on the state.

"Traditionally, Labor Day is still sort of a time when people get serious," said York County Democratic Party Chairman Jim Watkins. "I think more attention will be paid this go-round."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut have headlined Democratic events in Rock Hill already this summer, but Clinton and Biden would be making their first appearances.

Republicans Huckabee and Brownback, meanwhile, are hoping to win support among religious conservatives with their ardent pro-life stances. Huckabee spoke to 90 people at Captain Steve's restaurant in April.

Candidates have typically focused their efforts on the coast, Columbia and Greenville/Spartanburg, but York County's booming population is making it a more attractive destination as well, said Karen Kedrowski, a political scientist at Winthrop University.

"Now that it's clear South Carolina is going to maintain its position as first-in-the-South, we're going to see more and more attention," she said. "With the incredibly compressed primary schedule, it means the candidates have to get out to the early bellwether states."