Jobs are issue No. 1 for South Carolina vote-seekers
South Carolina voters will look at the results in Iowa and New Hampshire before selecting a Republican presidential contender on Jan. 21, according to state Republican chairman Chad Connelly.
Yet first-in-the-South's primary voters will "give all of the candidates a true test of their ability to beat President Obama," he said.
The Palmetto State has picked the eventual Republican nominee since 1980.
South Carolina's primary — considered by many to be the first real test of this election year - is open to all, regardless of party affiliation. Absentee voting began Dec. 12.
Some GOP contenders moved into the state even before New Hampshire's voting began, hoping to jump-start stalled campaigns or to challenge Republican front-runner Mitt Romney on more neutral ground.
David Williams of Spartanburg said support for Romney is strong among his friends and family. Jon Huntsman is well liked but largely unknown, he said; Ron Paul's anti-abortion ads may boost his popularity, but Rick Perry is a "dead man walking."
The battle for second place, Williams said, seems to be between Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
But Gingrich has a problem with female voters, he added: "My female friends and relatives have an almost visceral distaste for him."
In contrast, former South Carolina congressman John Napier said Santorum is "a good candidate" but Gingrich, "at this time, in this circumstance, against this president, is "the right man."
A Public Policy Polling survey on Tuesday showed Romney heading into South Carolina with a modest lead at 30 percent, followed by Gingrich with 23 percent, Santorum with 19, and Paul, Perry and Huntsman in single digits.
Despite Gingrich's fierce attacks on Romney in New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor posted a 60 percent personal-favorability rating, versus a 29 percent negative rating.
He also seemed to have committed base: 67 percent of his supporters in the poll said they definitely will vote for him.
State GOP chairman Connelly dismissed earlier media suggestions that South Carolina's large evangelical base would oppose Romney because of his Mormon faith.
He points to two recent election-winners - the state's first minority and first female governor, Republican Nikki Haley, and its first black Republican congressman in more than a century, Tim Scott - as proof that South Carolina voters do not fit the national media stereotype.
Jim Dyke, a respected South Carolina GOP strategist, said it is a mistake to assume evangelical voters control the outcome.
"The issues here are jobs, military issues, gun rights and jobs," he said, purposely repeating the first and last points for emphasis.
Williams, the Spartanburg voter, described the Mormon issue as absurd. He said the focus is on jobs in a state where unemployment has been above the national average for years and remains nearly 10 percent.
South Carolina Democrats chose Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, while Republicans went for John McCain.
This year, McCain's endorsement has helped Romney to solidify support among the state's large military population, said Dyke, although "there will be plenty of people working tirelessly to take it away from him."
South Carolina voters take their responsibility seriously, according to Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard.
"The conflict in this state is traditionally between the socially conservative upstate, along Interstate 85, and the more moderate voters along the coast and lowlands," he explained.
"In 2008, (Mike) Huckabee did well in the upstate, and McCain did well in the low country." With Fred Thompson and Ron Paul splitting votes across the state, he said, "McCain was able to slip through and win."
Woodard described the state's Republican voters as conservative, with about 70 percent attending church weekly, and passionate about small government and political honesty. Twelve percent are military veterans, he said, and National Rifle Association membership is "high."
"They like the Tea Party, the military, Ronald Reagan and Jim DeMint," he said.
DeMint, South Carolina's U.S. senator and Tea Party darling, endorsed Romney in the 2008 primary but insists he is neutral this time.
Public Policy Polling director Tom Jensen said DeMint's backing can persuade a third of the Republican base to favor a candidate.Additional Information:
At a glance
Change since 2000: 15.3 percent increase
Black: 27.9 percent
White: 66.2 percent
Unemployment: 9.9 percent
Change since 2000: 3.4 percent increase
Black: 10.8 percent
White: 81.9 percent
Unemployment: 7.9 percent
-- Named for King Charles I by his son Charles II, the Province of South Carolina was one of the 13 American colonies that declared independence from the British Crown.
-- The Civil War began in 1861 in Charleston harbor when South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter.
-- On Nov 2, 1954, Republican Strom Thurmond became the first U.S. senator elected by write-in vote. Thurmond received 139,106 votes.
-- The Palmetto State's primary is the first in the South.
-- Since 1980, every Republican presidential candidate who won this contest secured the GOP nomination.
Source: 2010 Census Bureau and Tribune Review research