McAuliffe, 62, began popping up in early-voting states late last year, campaigning with candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire as he explored a possible run for the White House. In January, the longtime Democratic power player used his old state political action committee to raise big money and cut checks to Democrats in both states, with campaign finance reports showing the PAC raised $300,000 in the second half of 2018.
Part of the pitch McAuliffe said he's making to power brokers in early-voting states is his ability to make Democratic inroads in Virginia, under Republican control for nearly two decades. In the 2017 elections, the last of McAuliffe's four-year tenure as governor, 15 House of Delegates seats shifted from Republican to Democratic control, reducing the GOP's majority to two seats.
"I took a red state and made it blue," the former Democratic National Committee chairman said. "We had the biggest pickups in 140 years under my four years as governor, and if we did it there, we can do it here in South Carolina."
Some have expressed concern that it could be difficult for McAuliffe to garner broad-based popularity in the wake of the political crisis that engulfed three of Virginia's top Democrats, turning the state that has trended toward the left back into a potential battleground in the upcoming presidential race.
"Voters could take this out on Democrats ... less as an ideological shift but more as an issue of repercussions for genuine political scandal," Josh Schwerin, who worked for McAuliffe, said earlier this year.
Last month, President Donald Trump gleefully agreed, predicting in a tweet that he will reclaim a state he lost by 5 percentage points to Hillary Clinton in 2016. "Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia," he tweeted. "If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken. Virginia will come back HOME Republican) in 2020!"
Part of McAuliffe's calculus could be timed around an expected announcement from former Vice President Joe Biden, with whom many of McAuliffe's potential supporters may also fall politically in line. Like Biden, McAuliffe is largely seen as a centrist Democrat angling to tap into a network of supporters and donors cultivated over the last three decades during the Clinton and Obama administrations. During an event Monday at George Mason University in Virginia, McAuliffe said he believes Biden "is 95 percent" in the race, "but he hasn't made a 100 percent decision to do it."
As part of his trip to South Carolina, McAuliffe met with House members and planned to make a stop at Allen University, a historically black school in Columbia. Later Tuesday, he was expected to attend a reception at the home of longtime Democratic activists Don and Carol Fowler. Don Fowler chaired the DNC in the 1990s. His wife, Carol, headed the South Carolina Democratic Party in the 2000s.
"We're sort of getting the lay of the land, seeing old friends, firing folks up and seeing where we go," McAuliffe said.
Associated Press writer Christina L. Myers contributed to this report.