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Unusually quiet, S.C. still key for GOP field

SPARTANBURG, S.C.

Dave Williams was baptized in South Carolina politics as a teenager.

"I attended a Nixon rally with my parents," he recalled. "We were the only Republicans on our street, as far as I know."

Later in life, the former Air Force officer said, he was an alternate convention delegate for Democrat Jesse Jackson.

"I've gone back and forth between parties," he said, describing himself as "mostly conservative in outlook but could be considered liberal on one or two issues."

Williams, 57, exemplifies where America is politically -- independent but leaning conservative. Born and raised here, he served his country, worked as a financial planner and school psychologist, and for 17 years has taught psychology at the local community college.

His wife favors Georgia businessman Herman Cain for 2012, despite Cain's recent troubles; Williams likes Mitt Romney.

South Carolinians are serious about their first-in-the-South primary role, so much so that the slogan "We pick presidents" is a point of pride for both parties here.

Yet for the first time in modern primaries, candidates are not spending a lot of time in the Palmetto State, according to Jim Dyke, a Charleston, S.C., GOP strategist and former Republican National Committee communications director.

A lot more activity typically goes on here at this point, Dyke said. "I think that Romney is the front-runner and ... has sort of set the pace for everyone else."

He described Romney's strategy as a quiet, methodical grassroots effort, completely opposite from his strategy of total domination in 2008, when he lost to John McCain.

Dyke attributed that change in strategy to "lessons learned. He realizes that the time to peak is on the day of the primary."

David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor, described South Carolina as a very conservative state where "about 70 percent of the GOP primary electorate attends church about once a week."

Those voters are pro-life, anti-gay-marriage. They favor small government and politicians who say what they mean and mean what they say, "as when Rep. Joe Wilson blurted out 'You lie!' in the Obama State of the Union address," Woodard explained.

They are predominantly white, middle-class and older, Woodard said; they watch Fox News Channel and read about politics in newspapers and blogs. They like the tea party, the military, Ronald Reagan and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; they remember the Civil War as the "War of Northern Aggression."

"Twelve percent of them have military experience, and there is a high NRA membership throughout the state," he added.

Williams, the Romney supporter, did not attend Nov. 12's Republican debate here but he did do a drive-by viewing of the hoopla at various street corners around the Wofford College debate site. He saw what he described as Ron Paul's "fanatical followers" -- a "motley" group of some 75 "Occupy" types "promoting or protesting a witches' brew of causes" -- and two Obama supporters, "one of whom was wearing a horned Viking helmet for reasons I can't fathom."

According to most national political pundits, a parade of unelectable or uninterested candidates has alternately won the hearts and minds of GOP primary voters since last spring because no one candidate is acceptable.

Most primary voters and other experts disagree with that assessment, however.

"This happens every cycle," said Sean Trende, senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. "Early on, a candidate may seem exciting, press the right ideological buttons, etc., but when it comes time to vote, those voters can't really ... see that candidate as president."

Since the 1970s, the GOP's center of gravity has been the South, so South Carolina is uniquely positioned to measure the party's temperature in 2012, Trende said.

"Remember, South Carolina doesn't necessarily elect the most conservative candidate," he said. "John McCain took a huge step toward claiming the nomination by winning there in 2008."

Dyke agreed that, for many South Carolina voters, conservatism is indeed more important than electability.

"But if you are a candidate who has a strong plan on the most important issue to most people -- the economy -- you will ... draw the winning ticket out of South Carolina," he predicted.

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