GREENVILLE, S.C. — "Be loud," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley tells Republicans.
Demand specific answers from potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates. "Let's ask the tough questions," she told a tea party rally here last week. "We don't want to hear about how they can win."
That feistiness defines the Republican mood in this state, traditionally the first Southern presidential test. As a result, South Carolina is poised to become not only a test of how conservatives judge GOP candidates, but also how much the party's hard right will influence the GOP presidential nomination.
While Haley provides the pep talks, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a favorite among conservatives, is positioning himself as the kingmaker here.
"The front-runner will be whoever Jim DeMint endorses," said David Woodard, a Republican consultant and political science professor at Clemson University.
DeMint said he won't endorse a candidate who doesn't agree to back a constitutional amendment to balance the budget in exchange for increasing the nation's debt limit. That could be a lot to ask.
"I might not have anybody to support," DeMint chuckled.
Republican voters here are highly motivated. With strong help from tea party conservatives, they won the governorship and toppled veteran Rep. John Spratt, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee, last year. They also remain frustrated by a still-ailing economy — the March jobless rate here was 9.9 percent, well above the national average — and by what they consider the nation's ongoing moral collapse.
"We're more sharp-elbowed than other states because we're living it," said former state party chairman Karen Floyd. "This state is suffering enormously."
The state's economic woes have only magnified Republicans' resentment of big government.
Take Lucia Newman of Sumter, for instance. She was laid off from her job as a commercial loan banker after 32 years of work. She's collecting unemployment benefits, but finds "the system is a joke. There is no accountability to motivate a person to get off that (system)."
Newman and her friend Shery Smith, a retired Sumter respiratory therapist, are tea party activists looking at all the potential GOP candidates. While they're not crazy about Mitt Romney's backing of near-universal health care when he was Massachusetts' governor, "at least he tried," said Newman.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann gets praise for her call to lower taxes. Smith, who says she's "strongly pro-life," adds that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum can't be ruled out.
"I like his stand on social issues," she said.
What they want most are those elusive precise answers that Haley called for.
"Don't just tell me you want change. Tell me about your plan," Smith said. "And you should have a history of doing things," added Newman. "If you want to see what type of tree you are buying, look at the fruit it's bearing. You don't get apples from a lemon tree."
The two women fit a pattern here: Folks are polite and seem gentle, but when they start talking politics, they're on fire.
Alice Spearman, a Cayce nutrition company executive, loathes the 2010 health care overhaul, which requires most people to obtain coverage by 2014. "I don't see how that can work," she said. "Business will have to cut back, and that's going to mean fewer jobs."
She'll pick a candidate only after hearing specifics on how they'd fix it. "Show me a good health care plan," Spearman said. "So far, I haven't seen one."
No issue incites these voters more than the federal government's size and debt.
"What's different this year is the degree of angst people feel," said former Gov. Mark Sanford. As the GOP presidential candidates talk about the issues, people will see the connection between the federal debt and the sluggish economy, he said, "and they're going to say, 'I'm really ticked off.'"
Many already are.
Ask people what they would be willing to sacrifice to reduce the debt and they have ready answers.
"If you have to close national parks, do it. The way things are going, people won't be able to go on vacation anyway," said Raymond Zachry, a retired insurance claims manager from Pickens. People should be ready to accept reductions in Social Security benefits, said Phillip Bowers, a manager at a Seneca nuclear power plant who's also Pickens County Republican chairman.
Younger people often voice similarly strong opinions. Woodard found a ''strong libertarian streak" among the under-25 generation.
Kristin Archie, a senior at Clemson University, dislikes the new health care law, wants to abolish the income tax, is strongly anti-abortion and likes Santorum. "He's focused on the social issues, and you can't compromise on those issues," Archie says. "America was founded on moral values, and you can't just throw those out the window."
Few have settled on a candidate. Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman was in the state for three days last week, meeting with top Republicans and delivering the University of South Carolina commencement address. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is well known; his former Georgia congressional district is a quick drive from western South Carolina.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been even more active, but still has work to do. "I like the guy from Minnesota — what's his name? He's had some good budgets and he knows how to work with people," says Donnie Allen, a Clemson tea party activist.
So far, the tea party is driving the dialogue. Bowers, the Pickens County GOP chairman, estimated about 60 percent of state Republicans identify with the movement. But as next winter's primary gets closer, he said, the 40 percent who tend to be the organizers, fundraisers and poll workers will gain more clout.
The way to win the primary, Bowers said, is to show that you're both electable and ready to battle. To do that, candidates must offer precise answers, because folks here are not shy about demanding them.
As Haley told the tea party rally: "Make sure they hear you loud."
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