COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Mere months after the 2012 election, South Carolina is a buzz of political activity with a slate of potential presidential candidates already looking ahead to the state's "first in the South" primary _ still three years away.
Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea party favorite with national aspirations, descended on South Carolina on Friday to whip up the partisan faithful and offer a presidential campaign tease for the state. Both parties are preparing for next week's special congressional election featuring former GOP Gov. Mark Sanford and Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert.
"As soon as I show up in South Carolina, the Washington press corps comes out and says, `Is Biden getting ready?'" the vice president said at an annual party dinner, insisting that he came at the request of another Democrat, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. "I've got to make clear: I would go anywhere Jim asked me to go."
At the Democratic confab, more than 1,000 packed a convention center ballroom for the $125-per-person dinner, where Biden laid into House Republicans for "fighting like the devil" for a budget plan that he said slashes education, undercuts law enforcement and gets rid of Medicare.
"Where are they from? What don't they understand about this country?" Biden said, his voice rising to a roar. "What don't they understand about those decent Americans, who paid their whole lives, who built this country, who fought in wars?"
Cruz reminded Republicans at an annual state GOP dinner that less than a decade ago the party controlled the White House and Congress. He said Republicans could begin to turn the tide by regaining control of the Senate in the 2014 elections. "Things can change quickly," Cruz said.
In this conservative state that reliably votes Republican in national and statewide general elections, partisans already are getting a hefty amount of attention. Typically, South Carolina finds itself at the center of American politics for a brief time every four years during the presidential primary season, when it usually is the third state to weigh in on who should become the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.
South Carolina's primaries have played an important role in the nominating process for both parties; the state gave Barack Obama a commanding victory in 2008 and until last year, every Republican nominee had won the state's primary since Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Years ahead of the 2016 contests, Republican and Democratic hopefuls alike already are starting to survey the landscape, court support and weigh in on local matters, with wide-open fields shaping up in both parties.
"The activists in this state are unhappy about the results of the presidential election," said Jay W. Ragley, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. "They're looking for someone who has a message which national Republicans can rally behind."
With Obama barred from seeking a third term, Democrats here also may be starting to seek their own consensus candidate.
This week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 candidate, endorsed Sanford, and the party announced that Paul would hold fundraisers for Republicans in the state on June 28. Last month, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, talked up his record _ and heaped criticism on South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley _ during a Democratic event in Charleston, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, said to be eyeing another run after losing the GOP nomination last year, campaigned for Curtis Bostic, who lost to Sanford in a Republican run-off for the open congressional seat.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 candidate, was here months ahead of the pack, headlining the state's Silver Elephant dinner last year.
Absent thus far, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has longstanding ties to South Carolina going back to the time of her husband's presidency. The former first lady and New York senator has said she has not made any decisions about her future, but many Democrats are eager for her to step forward and campaigns urging her to run are underway.
In a sign of the hunger for Clinton, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi gushed over Clinton's experience during an event Thursday at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, Ark., telling an audience, "I pray that Hillary Clinton decides to run for president."
Biden and Cruz were in the spotlight Friday evening _ speaking at party events about two miles from each other.
"I'll bet they're talking about the middle class _ ooph," Biden said mockingly of Cruz's Republican event.
Cruz told the GOP gathering that Biden was in Columbia. "You know, the great thing _ you don't even need a punch line. You just say that and people laugh," he said.
The vice president headlined the state party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner and then dropped by an annual fish fry held by Clyburn. Biden, who twice unsuccessfully ran for president, hasn't ruled out running a third time in 2016. But Biden's decision about whether to run seems unavoidably overshadowed by Clinton, who many Democrats say would eclipse the vice president should she choose to run.
At the fish fry celebrating Clyburn's 20 years in Congress, it was Biden who worked a rope line five people deep, greeting supporters and working the room the way he did four years ago during his second presidential campaign, and then again later as Obama's running mate.
While careful not to upstage the president with flagrant displays of ambition, Biden has kept at least a toe planted firmly in the political world since the start of his and Obama's second term.
He schmoozed with prominent Democrats from Iowa and New Hampshire _ the first two states to hold presidential primary contests last year _ during the inaugural weekend. He's making calls for the House Democrats' campaign arm, working to recruit candidates to help his party win the House next year. And last month, he traveled to Michigan to give the keynote at a state party dinner.
Biden became the figurehead for Obama's push on gun control, appearing countless times with gun violence victims and advocates to urge his former colleagues in the Senate to act. It was unsuccessful. Yet, Biden says he's not giving up the fight; he met with law enforcement officials about the issue Thursday. The same day, while in Mexico, Obama announced that Biden would play an active role in a new partnership with Mexico to strengthen the two countries' economic ties.
Cruz, meanwhile, joined a chorus of people paying tribute to former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who was an early supporter of the freshman senator.
The Texan is new to national politics, having been in Washington just a few months after becoming the lone tea party candidate to win a Senate seat last year.
In just a few weeks on the job, the insurgent Republican ran afoul of GOP mainstays, prompted Democrats to compare his style to McCarthyism and voted against nearly everything of significance that came before him. Through it all, he made clear he intends to be a conservative standard-bearer.
All that endeared him to a segment of the party and sparked talk of presidential ambitions.
On Wednesday amid presidential buzz, Cruz issued a statement on his Facebook page: "In my short tenure, my focus has been _ and will remain _ on two things: fighting for conservative principles in the Senate and working to help elect strong conservatives to win a majority in the Senate in 2014." He added: "It is a continued source of amazement that the simple fact that I am working hard with like-minded senators to keep my promise is seen as newsworthy and cause for wild speculation."
His appearance here was only fueling the talk, though he did not address the issue head-on. DeMint, a mentor who recently stepped down to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, tried to tamp down the speculation. "I can assure you he's thinking about Senate business and that's about it right now," DeMint said of Cruz.
Follow Ken Thomas on Twitter: http://twitter.com/AP_Ken_Thomas
Follow Josh Lederman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)