GOP bellwether South Carolina shows a tangled race
The Iraq war and immigration are dividing evangelicals in the early-primary state.
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McCain has gone to great lengths since then to mend ties with evangelicals. He met with late Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he once criticized as one of the nation's "agents of intolerance." He backed South Carolina's antigay-marriage amendment and state legislation to show pregnant women an ultrasound of their fetus before an abortion. He set up a faith advisory panel with ties to Bob Jones University, a Christian institution in Greenville he had denounced in the 2000 campaign for its ban, since lifted, on interracial dating.Skip to next paragraph
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The efforts bore fruit, with early endorsements from Sen. Lindsey Graham, the attorney general, and the state House speaker, and state legislative leaders.
But McCain's advocacy for the Senate immigration bill and his recent campaign troubles have left many supporters with second thoughts, Republican activists say. "McCain's record on social issues in South Carolina has been completely overshadowed by immigration," says Lisa Van Riper, a leading antiabortion activist here.
A conundrum for some local conservative leaders is Mr. Giuliani's generally high poll numbers, despite his support for abortion rights. Though some say his ratings will drop once Republican voters pay closer attention to the race, others say his celebrity after 9/11 and his perceived electability may be sidelining social issues dear to evangelicals.
"I do think that prolife issues will play very heavy in [evangelicals'] decision," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the state Republican Party. "But I don't see it as the single disqualifier this time."
Mr. Romney's reputation as a family man – he is the only top-tier candidate still in his first marriage – has helped win over some "values voters," activists say. But his Mormon faith remains a stumbling block for many religious conservatives.
Mormons "have some practices we think wouldn't put him in the same category as other Christians," said Joseph Mack, public policy director for the South Carolina Baptist Convention, a service agency for the state's 700,000 Southern Baptists, the state's largest religious denomination.
Thompson as a wild card
The main wild card here is Mr. Thompson, the "Law & Order" actor and former Tennessee senator, who has been honing his image as a traditional conservative and "speaks our language" as a Southerner, as one activist here put it. But if he enters the race, analysts say, his lobbying for an abortion-rights group, his second marriage to a woman 24 years his junior, and his vote for a campaign finance measure loathed by religious conservatives could become liabilities.
All the soul-searching comes as the state tries to fend off an attack on its status as the "Gateway to the South" primary. Florida has advanced its primary to Jan. 29, four days ahead of South Carolina, to third place after New Hampshire and Iowa. GOP leaders here have vowed to leapfrog Florida.
Whatever happens, Governor Sanford argued, South Carolina won't be upstaged as a Southern bellwether.
"That presupposes that Florida is a Southern state," he said, contending that its large populations of Northern retirees and Cuban Americans make it atypical. "A lot of folks who might consider themselves part of the deeper South would take exception to that notion."