In South Carolina, Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly has printed bumper stickers reading, "We Pick Presidents" — referring to the state's track record of selecting the eventual GOP nominee for 30 years now.
"This is where the battle royale is going to take place," he says.
South Carolina is now the battleground in the Republican presidential race. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney brings momentum from back-to-back Iowa and New Hampshire victories to the "First in the South" primary on Jan. 21. But the state also is new terrain — a place where Romney is going to have to appeal to religious conservatives and Tea Party voters.
Connelly says the nature of the electorate leaves an opening for a rival like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
About half of likely voters in the primary are evangelicals, and historically, social issues have been important. They still are, Connelly says — but they're not necessarily the first thing on people's minds.
"Right now, everybody's attention is focused on jobs and the economy," he says. "But there is a threshold of acceptance level — you know, you got to be pro-life. I mean, goodness gracious, if you're not taking care of life, you don't care about anything else. And traditional marriage and traditional values matter."
It's The Economy
Over breakfast at the Lizard's Thicket country-style restaurant in Columbia on Wednesday morning, voters did rank the economy as their most pressing concern.
"Unemployment — absolutely," said Bobby Branham of Chapin, who works for an insurance company. He says South Carolina's nearly 10 percent unemployment rate has taken a toll.
"I'm fortunate I have a job, but there's a lot of people out there [who] don't," he said. "I do real estate on the side, and I see a lot of foreclosures. And it's sad when ... I'm looking at all these homes that people just had to run away from. They're desperate. And I think the politicians are really out of touch."
Branham said he's a Republican-leaning independent and he plans to vote for Romney because of his business background and executive experience.
At a nearby table, Nicholas Thorpe was having his usual Wednesday breakfast with his Sunday school class from Columbia First Baptist Church. Thorpe has been out of work for six months, and he is decidedly behind Romney.
"I've been able to reconcile my faith differences with him," Thorpe said of Romney's Mormonism — a faith some evangelicals don't believe is true Christianity.
Thorpe said that's not the point. "I look at Romney's moral leanings and directions that he wants to take the country and find out that they still line up with my belief system, and feel I can support him and still be a Southern Baptist, if you will," he said.
A Lack Of Excitement
But other candidates are hoping to gain ground by portraying Romney as out of line with traditional South Carolina values. Gingrich's camp started running an ad Wednesday that focuses on abortion.
"What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his position from pro-abortion to pro-life?" the ad asks. "He governed pro-abortion."
As Gingrich, Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry all reach for social conservatives, voters have yet to coalesce around any one of them as the alternative to front-runner Romney.
"Nobody in this current field excites me," said Curt Bair, a doctor in Columbia.
"I think [Texas Rep.] Ron Paul is a good man, I think he's a constitutionalist, but I don't think he stands a chance in this election," Bair said. "Newt Gingrich, I think, is a fairly conservative guy but strikes me as a career politician. And Romney is just way too moderate for me."
Over the next 10 days, Romney will be trying to convince South Carolina Republicans otherwise.
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