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What do South Carolina voters want?

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, accompanied by South Carolina State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, second from left, campaigns at Andrews Field House at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Easley, S.C. -- Just days before South Carolina Republicans head to the polls, Mitt Romney's rivals for the nomination are storming the Palmetto state, searching for a message that will resonate with voters and put them in the running to win Saturday's key primary contest.

In a state known for its traditionally conservative, deeply southern, and heavily Christian Republican population, candidates like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry are furiously vying to assume the mantle of the anti-Romney consensus conservative -- largely by playing up their commitment to Christian, Tea Party-friendly socially conservative values.

Given the state's demographics - in the 2008 primary, 60 percent of voters identified as evangelicals - that strategy seems reasonable. But so far, the voters appear unconvinced. Nearly all the recent polls out of the Palmetto state show Romney with a double-digit lead over his competitors. Gingrich has in recent days seen a modest boost, but according to a new CNN/Time/ORC poll, he's still trailing Romney 33 percent to 23 percent.

The result is a dichotomy that some observers suspect may be repeated across the country throughout the Republican nominating process: Voters appear simultaneously lukewarm about the prospect of a Romney presidency, and yet unlikely to coalesce around any of the so-called potential "conservative alternatives" that his rivals have sought to be.

In South Carolina, this is particularly notable. After all, if Southern conservatives with a Tea Party and evangelical bent can't rally around the anti-Romney, can anyone? Which begs the question: Who is the South Carolina Republican voter and what exactly is he or she looking for?

"The Upstate" vs. the Coast

While the Palmetto state is solidly conservative as a whole, the party is largely divided along geographical terms: Northwestern regions like Spartanburg and Greenville -- or "the upstate," as it's known -- skew socially conservative, with large evangelical and Tea Party populations, while economic conservatives dominate the coastal areas.

"We have two different types" of Republicans, said Scott Buchanan, Executive Director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. "We have social conservatives, who would look a little more similar to maybe what we saw in Iowa. And then we have economic conservatives. Sometimes you will hear them not-so-nicely referred to as 'country club Republicans.' But conservatives who are more worried about economic issues tend to be more upper-middle-class."

Ostensibly, social conservatives place a higher premium on religiously-oriented issues like abortion and gay marriage. But in South Carolina, unemployment is 9.9 percent. Even upstate, Buchanan says, particularly outside of relatively thriving areas like Spartanburg and Greenville, voters are preoccupied with issues like job creation and the economy.

"A lot of smaller communities [upstate] have been hit very hard over the last 10 to 20 years," Buchanan says, due to the decline of heavy manufacturing industries. Pointing to a telephone town hall in which he recently participated, Buchanan noted that "callers from the upstate were constantly asking questions about, how are you going to bring back traditional industries? They were not really making the connection there that those aren't coming back."  

"For those social conservatives, unemployment has been around for awhile," Buchanan says.

Does the Tea Party still have sway?

Much has been made thus far about the Tea Party's potential to impact the 2012 election. And in many ways, South Carolina is seen as a kind of epicenter for the movement, despite its generally loose structure and almost self-consciously decentralized nature. Jim DeMint, the state's junior senator, is something of an ideological leader for the cause, and Nikki Haley was ushered into the governorship in 2010 amid - and in part because of - a strong base of Tea Party supporters. The state also has a multitude of county-wide Tea Party organizations.

Regardless of the South Carolina Tea Party's potential to influence Saturday's January 21 primary, the movement has so far failed to come together in support of a candidate. Haley endorsed Romney, a move some disdained as a crass political calculation, as did the state treasurer, but local Tea Party chapters and activists have declined to fall into line behind the candidate, often endorsing one of his rivals or no one at all.  

Voters are also demonstrating some apparent ambivalence over the movement. According to a December 2011 poll from Winthrop University, 83.3 percent of Republicans in the state said they did not consider themselves members of the Tea Party (up more than 20 points from a September survey).  

Buchanan doesn't interpret this as a signal of the waning influence of the movement; conversely, he says, the Tea Party has already driven all of the Republican candidates to the right.

"You can see Tea Party elements to some degree in all the candidates," he said. Citing a recent study in which 90 percent of Florida Tea Party members said they'd vote for the GOP nominee regardless of who it was, Buchanan said: "I suspect you would see numbers even higher than that in South Carolina. I don't see Tea Party supporters voting for Obama, nor do I think they're going to say home."

The Evangelical Factor

Unlike the Tea Party, Christian leaders have attempted to unite evangelical groups across the nation: Last weekend, about 100 evangelical leaders met in Texas to confer over their selection for an endorsement they hoped would boost their pick's chances. (They ultimately tapped Rick Santorum.) So far, the impact of their endorsement appears to be minimal.   

"It's not terribly shocking to me that South Carolinian evangelicals are having a hard time deciding on a candidate, even after what happened in Texas," said Dan Mathewson, a professor at South Carolina's Wofford University and an expert on the South Carolina evangelical community, referring to the weekend's events. "From what I have been hearing, it's not like all evangelicals are falling in line behind these 100 or so leaders."

For one thing, Mathewson argues, South Carolina's Christian community is incredibly diverse. By his count, evangelicals presently make up somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of the South Carolina population, and identify as everything from Southern Baptists, to Pentacostalists, to a burgeoning movement of progressive evangelicals. Meanwhile, most of the candidates, he says, are doing little to distinguish themselves from one another in the eyes of religious voters.

"There really isn't much difference between the candidates," Mathewson said, excepting Ron Paul, who has his own specific variety of supporter. "They're all saying exactly what an evangelical voter would want to hear, so how do you distinguish between Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry on basically two social issues? If they're all in agreement there then naturally you're going to have to find other issues for them to distinguish themselves."

Consequently, he says, voters are zeroing in on issues like the economy. Even among those who prioritize social issues, the vote is being split three ways.

"South Carolina evangelicals are certainly interested in the core social issues, but they're not just one-issue voters," Mathewson said. "The economy is such a major issue in South Carolina."

A Changing Electorate

While most South Carolinians would likely urge observers not to underestimate the complexity of a Christian conservative's voting habits, the makeup of the state is also changing in a way that will inevitably impact the vote. One of a handful of states to pick up a congressional seat in the 2012 redistricting process, South Carolina's population has grown substantially in recent years: Between 2000 and 2010, the population increased 15.3 percent.

According to Buchanan, a lot of that growth reflects the economically conservative population -- which is more likely to favor Romney.

"That growth is from people moving into South Carolina from other portions of the country. Here on the coast there are a large number of retirees, especially from the Northeast," he said. "Those retirees who are coming from other sections of the country tend to be more economic conservatives than they are social conservatives. To some degree that's the reason you're seeing, if the polls are to be believed, that Romney has a 12 point lead. If you look at the electorate in 2012 versus 2002, or 1992, or whatever, it is a different state in the sense of the electorate."

Meanwhile, issues that once dominated statewide concerns -- like the military -- have receded from the political spotlight.

The Economic Trump Card

Ultimately, a number of strategists believe that the bottom line is the state's economic woes.  South Carolina's unemployment rate is nearly 1.5 percent above the national average -- a figure that leaps to the double digits in some rural areas like Marion County, where as of November 2011 it stood at 17.3 percent.

"This race is about jobs - it's about job creation, it's about electability," said Chip Felkel, an unaligned GOP strategist in the state. "I think that [Romney] has been able to connect quite well with a number of people who see him as someone who could be elected in the fall. They certainly seem his as a guy who's been in business."

Both Buchanan and Mathewson agree that in 2012, economic concerns trump social and religions factors.

"I just think the economy is driving everything at this point," Buchanan said. "Even more than health care, you hear people talking about the economy. I think that's the number one issue by far and that's why you're not hearing much about the others."

Buchanan says voters are not as concerned about "connecting" with Romney on a personal level as long as they see him as someone who can beat President Obama and kickstart the economy.  

"I don't think there's any sort of 'connection,' he said. "I think they are looking at this as, who can beat Obama?"

Still, it's not over yet. Gingrich's campaign has seen recent signs of life in the Palmetto state, and he appears to be creeping up in the South Carolina polls. At a town hall Wednesday in Easley, S.C., he was greeted by an exuberant crowd at a standing-room only event.

Buchanan, like many, sees it as an uphill battle for any candidate. "If you got a double-digit lead five days in from the primaries, you gotta convince a lot of people to change their minds."

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