GREENVILLE, S.C. — The ice cream was cold but the rhetoric was hot at the Spill the Beans coffee house and sweet shop on Thursday as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani poked fun at Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton's health care and economic proposals, calling them preludes to a massive tax increase.
But when the Republican was asked whether his stances on hot-button social issues such as abortion, gun control, civil unions between same-sex partners and immigration will ruin his drive for the White House in a state that considers itself the conservative buckle of the Bible Belt, he turned serious.
"I think people are surprised, maybe, about how strong a candidate I am in South Carolina," he told a small but supportive crowd that packed into the coffeehouse. ". . . Maybe there's a different story there than the one that you're looking for."
The conventional wisdom is that Giuliani's social views and lifestyle, which includes three marriages, two divorces and an appearance in drag, would make him unacceptable to South Carolina voters, despite the hero status he earned from guiding New York through the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
So far, though, he's defying the conventional wisdom. Giuliani isn't leading in the Palmetto state, but he's showing well. He trails former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in three recent polls, but his numbers are within the margin of error in two of the surveys.
Romney has made more than 49 stops in South Carolina since Jan. 1, and his campaign has been airing a 30-second TV ad statewide for the last five weeks. It was Romney's first major media buy in the state, but his campaign won't say how much it cost.
Giuliani, who's made 11 trips and spent 15 days in South Carolina since Jan. 1, has run only six different radio ads in the state. He wrapped up a two-day South Carolina campaign swing Friday that took him from upstate Greenville to the Low Country in Charleston, where he announced that he received an endorsement from former GOP presidential candidate and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Despite the endorsement and the enthusiastic reception from audiences, questions and criticism continue in the state about Giuliani's social conservative credentials.
"I don't know who the pollsters are talking to," said Joseph Mack, the policy director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, which represents 2,000 churches and 725,000 Southern Baptists in the state. "South Carolina Baptists, most of them, would put values in front. Of course national defense is important, but we're concerned about the marriage issue, pro-life issues. The mayor is not pro-life, pro-family (because of civil unions), and that will not bode well for him here in South Carolina."
Giuliani doesn't talk much about social issues here unless he's asked. At stops in Greenville, Rock Hill and Columbia on Thursday and Friday, he focused on tax cuts, reducing spending, cutting the size of the federal workforce and explaining why he's the only Republican presidential candidate who can defeat Clinton.
Hamp Atkins, the 5th congressional district chairman for the South Carolina Republican Party, said he knows chapter and verse about Giuliani's record on social issues and doesn't care.
"This election will not turn on conservative social issues," he said at a state GOP fundraiser that Giuliani attended in Rock Hill on Thursday night. "It's about leadership and security. We're fighting World War III, and Giuliani is a natural leader. He showed that in New York after 9-11."
Some local and national conservative leaders thought that Thompson's entry into the Republican presidential race would dramatically erode Giuliani's support in the South, especially in conservative South Carolina.
But while Thompson leads in some state polls, he's yet to catch fire with voters. There's little evidence of his campaign here, with few, if any, bumper stickers or posters.
"Thompson hasn't made a big splash," said Blease Graham, a University of South Carolina political science professor. "I was looking for him to run out 10 points ahead and extend that lead. But I don't think he has a message yet and he hasn't shown much spark."
Giuliani also may benefit from the growing number of northerners who're migrating to the state to work or retire and bringing less socially conservative attitudes with them.
"I thought I was conservative until I moved here," said John Thomas, a 68-year-old retiree who relocated from Buffalo, N.Y., to Rock Hill three years ago to be near his grandchildren. "The conservatives here have to see the bigger picture than the social issues, and I think some of them are. The Damn Yankees down here see the bigger picture. They're more moderate, more centrist, and I think that helps Rudy."