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DeMint’s resignation jump-starts S.C. campaign season

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Let the death match begin.

In South Carolina — a one-party state that still produces some of the country’s meanest, weirdest political battles — the resignation of Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican, means that the 2014 campaign season started Thursday.

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That’s because DeMint’s departure will create a once-in-a-generation opportunity: the governor’s office and both US Senate seats, all three of South Carolina’s brass rings, will be on the ballot at once.

The first step in that long campaign will be for Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican, to appoint someone to fill DeMint’s seat — either a placeholder who would step aside in 2014, or a real candidate, who would then have a leg up on rivals.

Here in the capital the first stage of the scrum was polite.

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Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Republican, said in a phone interview that both he and Representative Tim Scott, also a Republican, had notified Haley that they wanted to be considered for the job. Mulvaney and Scott are friends who don’t want to campaign against one another. But Mulvaney said this didn’t count: ‘‘It’s not really a race, is it?’’

‘‘We’ve both made Nikki aware of the fact that we’d be interested in the position,’’ Mulvaney said. ‘‘Tim’s been a little more public’’ about that intention. ‘‘But it’s not the same as running against each other.’’

JOCKEYING starts early

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Haley herself issued a statement Friday, saying she would make her decision ‘‘quickly’’ and would not engineer a way to take the seat herself.

‘‘Appointing a new member of the US Senate is a solemn duty, and I take this responsibility with utmost seriousness,’’ Haley said. ‘‘I will make this decision in a manner that is thoughtful and dignified, but also quickly.’’ She continued: ‘‘I will appoint a person who has the same philosophy of government that Jim DeMint and I share.’’

‘‘The governor will not run for Senate in 2014,’’ an aide said. ‘‘She loves the job she has.’’

So far, DeMint’s open seat has also attracted interest from a farcical candidate — television’s fake pundit Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native who asked viewers to badger Haley on Twitter, asking her to appoint him.

On Thursday, some people here said DeMint had privately supported Scott, a first-term legislator from the state’s coast, who has built a national following among conservatives. If Haley appoints Scott, he would make a startling kind of history: the Senate’s only black member would be a Republican, from the state where the Civil War began and where modern politics was dominated by Senator Strom Thurmond.

Later that day, another aide said DeMint had no favorites.

Even before DeMint’s announcement, 2014 looked like an interesting year in South Carolina politics. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, will be seeking reelection and could face a primary challenge: tea party groups have turned on him for supporting President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and on other issues.

That year could also bring a reelection campaign for Haley, a one-time Tea Party favorite who has rapidly become a symbol of the South Carolina GOP’s tendency to devour its own. A recent poll by Winthrop University here found just a 38 percent approval rating for her.

‘‘Nikki Haley is not highly favored right now with conservatives in South Carolina. She has not governed as she’d campaigned,’’ said Karen Martin, of the Spartanburg Tea Party. She cited Haley’s support for presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the South Carolina primary and faulted her for not doing more to cut state bureaucracy.

Now there will be a third marquee race here, to succeed DeMint. It could alter the other two races in significant ways.

If DeMint’s seat goes to a caretaker, then its primary in 2014 could become a giant Republican brawl — perhaps drawing away challengers who might have taken on Graham or Haley.

Mark Tompkins, a politics professor at the University of South Carolina, said this outcome might be the best one for Haley’s political future.

‘‘There’s a sort of musical-chairs quality to it,’’ Tompkins said. By contrast, he said, ‘‘if she puts Scott in the Senate, then her reelection campaign is one of the obvious targets for all these ambitious folks.’’

Tompkins said: ‘‘I come away still thinking the caretaker option — if she’s just [thinking of] her own future — makes more sense.’’ That could also leave Haley free to seek the seat herself, or to challenge Graham for his seat from the right.

Whatever happens in 2014, there’s a good chance of ugliness.

In 2010 alone, two allegations of infidelity were made against Haley by Republican men (she denied them), and a mysterious Democratic challenger to DeMint, Alvin Greene, won his nomination without any serious challengers. In addition, two longtime congressmen, John Spratt, a Democrat, and Bob Inglis, a Republican, lost to conservative upstarts.

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