HILTON HEAD, South Carolina -- Standing on stage in a ballroom here Friday night, Mitt Romney was flanked by three of his most high-profile endorsers: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, conservative diplomat John Bolton, and Arizona Senator John McCain.
In the wonky world of Republican campaign surrogates, these three are A-listers--well-known conservative figures whose voices carry authority within their respective constituencies. Each one of them was courted by other candidates, and each one eventually sided with Romney. And on Friday, each took a turn stumping for the Republican frontrunner--creating a stort of American Idol-style contest to prove who was the most talented surrogate.
As Romney looks beyond South Carolina, he will have to determine which allies will be valuable assets across timezones, and which ones should zip it once the primaries are over.
So how did each of them do?
A Tea Party hero and early-primary governor, Haley's was one of the most aggressively-courted endorsements of the cycle. And since Romney landed in South Carolina earlier this week, she has excelled at offering spirited, but upbeat defenses of the candidate's business record.
"I want to just remind you that we are conservatives, that we are Republicans," she said Friday to close her remarks. "What makes this country great is that we value the free market. Let's not allow ourselves get in a debate and join the Democrats when we start trashing the free market or trashing free enterprise."
But Haley's influence has its limits. Her first year in office came to a close with Tea Party leaders grumbling to the National Review about her half-hearted efforts to cut spending, and pursue other Tea Party agenda items. The disappointment is reflected in a statewide approval rating of 35 percent that barely rises above 50 percent when the respondents are limited to Republicans.
Her limited range of expertise was on display Friday night. Addressing a roomful of veterans and their families, she received only polite applause when he asserted that Romney "understands that you strengthen your military and you never apologize for America." The response was much better when she talked about immigration and social issues.
Bottom line: Even if her sway in South Carolina has been overhyped, Haley remains popular nationally among Republican women, and there's no denying her charisma. She's in for a year of cable news Romney surrogacy--and she could even end up on the veep shortlist.
The relaxed McCain was at his best Friday, connecting easily with the roomful of veterans, and entertaining the crowd with a standup routine of his greatest hits. After complimenting Romney on "one of the most powerful speeches I have seen him or anyone else give," McCain worried, "So now I have to follow it."
"It reminds me of an old line I used to use all the time," McCain said. "I feel a little bit like Zsa Zsa Gabor's fifth husband, who on their wedding night said, 'I know what I'm supposed to do, I just don't know how I'm supposed to make it interesting."
Every voter BuzzFeed spoke to after the event mentioned McCain specifically, as they lauded the former presidential candidate with affectionate praise.
"We love Senator McCain in the South!" exclaimed Alan Herd. And Margaret Shaughnessy said of McCain, "I was impressed. I never knew he had much of a sense of humor. He could have used that in the last election."
McCain is a huge help to Romney in the South, where he can make the candidate's national security message resonate with military families and veterans. What's more, when McCain goes after President Obama, he does it with the sort of intensity and skill only a general election opponent can muster.
Bottom line: Expect to see plenty more of him in the Southern states that vote on Super Tuesday--and in the general election if Romney gets the nod.
Bolton received the loudest applause upon introduction Friday. A polarizing conservative foreign policy expert--and outspoken Obama critic--Bolton revved up the crowd with rhetoric unlikely to appear anywhere on Romney's campaign website.
"The irony is that [Obama] is campaigning on the basis that he's a success as a foreign policy president," Bolton said. "This is really amazing. If you ask what it is that made the success, it's because Navy Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden. That's his definition of success... because it happened to occur during his presidency."
The assertion that Obama deserves no credit for bin Laden's death is popular Fox News fodder, and the audience of military men and women here reacted enthusiastically, shouting "Yeah!"
But it's also at odds with Romney's own statement at the time of the killing: "This is a great victory for lovers of freedom and justice everywhere. Congratulations to our intelligence community, our military and the president."
Bottom line: He's great for the conservative base, but his no-holds-barred criticism of the president could prove a liability in the general election.
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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