Predicting the South Carolina GOP vote is a challenge

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, left, talks with Ralph Reed at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Prayer Breakfast in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Sunday, January 15, 2012. (Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News/MCT)
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, left, talks with Ralph Reed at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Prayer Breakfast in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on Sunday, January 15, 2012. (Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News/MCT) Janet Blackmon Morgan / The Sun News / MCT

WASHINGTON — As the campaign for South Carolina's first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary enters its final week, many GOP activists and analysts in the state warn against portraying it as an ultraconservative bastion dominated by single-minded evangelicals.

While true in some aspects, they say, such a simplistic depiction ignores a shifting swirl of demographic, religious and historical currents that belie pat predictions about the outcome of Saturday's voting.

"We've got a lot of different Republicans," said Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. "The national stereotype is they're all religious conservatives. There's some truth to that, but we've also a military contingent, a strong business establishment and evangelicals who don't always vote in a bloc. A lot of them are looking at who can win against (President Barack) Obama and not necessarily who's a reflection of their own religious beliefs."

As recently as the 2000 primary, Bob Jones University, the influential fundamentalist school in Greenville, released a statement detailing why Roman Catholics aren't true Christians.

"If there are those who wish to charge us with anti-Catholicism, we stand guilty," the university said. "But we are not Catholic-haters."

Now, two Catholic candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum, are vying for evangelicals' votes. And recent polls show a Mormon, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, also could capture a sizeable portion of their support.

With more than six of 10 likely GOP primary voters describing themselves as evangelicals, the candidates' stands on abortion, school prayer, illegal immigration and other of their core issues definitely matter.

Yet Republicans in past presidential primaries here have picked winners — including relative moderates Bob Dole and John McCain — over true believers or hardcore conservatives such as the Rev. Pat Robertson or former TV commentator Pat Buchanan.

Since the South Carolina GOP started its White House primary in 1980, voters have chosen their party's eventual nominee in all six contested races.

Three of the victors — Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and George W. Bush in 2000 — went on to become president as well.

"That is something that we cherish," said Glenn McCall, one of the state's three members of the Republican National Committee and one of just two African-Americans on the RNC.

"We know how to pick conservatives, but we also know how to pick the nominee for our party," said McCall, who believes his party post precludes him from endorsing any candidate. "Folks are not looking for purity. Purity is not a winning strategy in this election."

That kind of talk buoys Romney, who finished fourth in South Carolina's 2008 primary, far behind McCain.

In a state with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates, Romney hopes his strong business background will overcome any misgivings voters might have about his faith, his championing as governor of Massachusetts of mandated health insurance, and his past broader leadership of a liberal Northeastern state.

"Never mind what they say about (Romney's former corporate investment firm) Bain Capital, he's a good business manager who did a great job as head of the (2002 Winter) Olympics and got the government of Massachusetts back on track after it had a $300 million deficit," said Robert Wilder, a retired beer and wine distributor from Sumter, S.C.

"He'll be good for the country, and he's probably the most likely one that can beat Obama," Wilder said.

Romney's base in South Carolina lies with business people and retirees like Wilder, many clustered in Charleston, a relatively cosmopolitan port city, and other coastal areas that have seen a large influx of Northerners in recent years.

Gingrich, a former U.S. representative from Georgia who served as speaker of the House, hopes that the election's focus on the country's economic woes will prompt South Carolina voters to favor his experience confronting complex federal budget issues and his reputation as an ultra-smart creator of innovative solutions to difficult problems.

That reputation likely helps Gingrich with the state's large group of tea party supporters who think federal spending is out of control and view the government's mounting debt as a crushing burden.

Thanks to such concerns, the Georgian is counting on tea party and other GOP activists willing to overlook his two divorces, his extramarital affair with his current wife, Callista, when she was a congressional aide, and his consulting payments of $1.6 million from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants whose lending practices some Republicans blame for the subprime mortgage collapse.

"It does bother me, but I can't expect perfection from anyone," Joe Dugan, state coordinator for the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition, said of Gingrich's past lapses.

"I feel that Speaker Gingrich underwent a transformation in his life in 2009, and he's a different person now," Dugan said. "If I'm going to do a proper vetting of the candidates, I have to look beyond their mistakes in the past and emphasize the good they can do in the future."

Dugan and the Myrtle Beach Tea Party that he heads have endorsed Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism in 2009 from having been a nominal Southern Baptist. Callista Gingrich is a Catholic.

Not everyone is so forgiving. The Rev. Marshall Watkins, associate pastor of the Sanctuary Southern Baptist Church in Greenville, is among them.

"If I'm going to be consistent with the way I thought of (President Bill) Clinton and what he did (in the Monica Lewinsky scandal), I feel like I can't condone Gingrich on moral and family issues," Watkins said. "His baggage is just too much for me."

Watkins, who is leaning toward Santorum over former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said he can't support Romney because of his faith.

"Although they've tried to put up a face of being family-oriented like evangelicals, there are still Mormons who hold to the old views of having more than one wife," Watkins said. "I just can't deal with that. And Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists believe in the Holy Trinity; the Mormons don't believe in the Trinity."

Amidst this swirl of religious and ideological currents in South Carolina, a number of analysts and GOP activists in the state are baffled by Gov. Nikki Haley's endorsement last month of Romney.

"I have no earthly idea why she did it other than she just thinks he's the best-organized and has the most money," said David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.

In declaring her support for Romney, Haley cited his strong executive experience in the private and public sectors, plus his ability to defeat Obama.

Haley, a former state legislator, was elected South Carolina's first female governor in November 2010 on a wave of strong conservative support boosted by an endorsement from Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and McCain's 2008 running mate.

But Haley's support could prove a mixed blessing for Romney. Her approval ratings have plummeted — to as low as 34 percent in a Winthrop University poll last month — after a series of missteps.

Among the missteps were a lavish business-recruitment trip she led to the Paris Air Show last summer and her reneging on campaign transparency vows by keeping events off her public schedule and directing staff to delete emails in possible violation of the state's open-records law.

"She's not disliked (among Republican stalwarts), but she's no kingmaker either," Woodard said.

Romney is running ahead of Gingrich among South Carolina Republicans by nearly 5 percentage points and is well ahead of Santorum by 12 points, according to realclearpolitics.com's average of the three most recent polls.

Woodard is out in the field surveying likely GOP primary voters for the Palmetto Poll, which he directs at Clemson.

Woodard is skeptical of all the polls and nervous about his own work. His last survey, completed just four weeks ago, showed Gingrich leading Romney by 17 points.

In the 2008 primary, Woodard stopped polling two days before voters cast their ballots in order to prepare his results and release them before Election Day. His poll had McCain defeating former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee by 6 points, double the final spread.

By stopping his field survey two days early, Woodard believes he only partially captured Huckabee's late surge. Now, four years later, he fears a similar problem — only this time, Woodard predicts that it will be Santorum with the final momentum.

Despite South Carolina Republicans repeatedly telling Woodard and other pollsters that federal spending and the broader economy are their top concerns, he senses that Santorum's strong religious beliefs and hard-line conservative views are resonating with them.

"My experience is there's a rush at the very end, and we might miss it," Woodard said. "Santorum is the guy who could close strong."


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