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GOP bellwether South Carolina shows a tangled race

The Iraq war and immigration are dividing evangelicals in the early-primary state.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 2007

Greenville, S.C.

For nearly three decades, South Carolina has been a make-or-break state for Republican presidential candidates. None has become the national nominee without a victory – often a decisive one – in this first-in-the-South primary.

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But six months before the primary here, the state is giving up few secrets about the direction of the race, reflecting a level of disarray in the Republican ranks rarely seen in years past.

GOP leaders and conservative activists here say that the war in Iraq and immigration policy are splintering upstate evangelical voters, a large voting bloc that has typically united around litmus-test social issues like abortion. And the lack of a candidate with both solid red-state credentials and a shot at the White House is sowing turmoil across the Republican base.

"Jesus himself could come back as a Republican candidate these days, and there would still be some people saying, 'I don't know about that guy,' " Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, says in a phone interview. "There's a really strong fine-tooth comb people are running through the candidates that you probably wouldn't see if things were looking rosier for Republicans these days."

Three candidates have held top spot

Recent polls of GOP voters here have had all the constancy of a roulette wheel, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, actor Fred Thompson, and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani each taking turns at the top.

The state's two US senators have split between Senator McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Governor Sanford, a former Congressman who backed McCain in 2000, says for the first time in his political career he does not plan to make a primary endorsement.

The Feb. 2 primary is still far off, but at this time in 1999, George W. Bush was already seen as a solid front-runner here, despite a push by McCain to woo the state's many veterans.

Analysts attribute South Carolina's indecision this time to a large Republican field with no conspicuous fit for Bible Belt conservatives.

"Voters don't have an obvious candidate who is in the evangelical camp and who seems like they can win," says C. Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville. "At the same time, you've got some other issues, like the war in Iraq and the security issues, that really are bigger than the kinds of issues" – like abortion – "that played out in 2000."

Two other factors, analysts say, are sharp rifts at the statehouse between fiscal and social conservatives and the deaths of local icons like Sen. Strom Thurmond and Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr. with sway over large swaths of the electorate.

Unlike in 2000, "it's not Bush versus McCain and you just choose up sides," says Ferrell Guillory, of the Center for the Study of the American South, at the University of North Carolina.

McCain's last presidential campaign was derailed here in 2000, in a rout by Bush after religious conservatives portrayed McCain's support for campaign- finance reform and fetal-tissue research as a threat to the antiabortion movement.

South Carolina's GOP primary: a bellwether

1980 Ronald Reagan won with 54 percent

1984 Reagan was uncontested

1988 George H.W. Bush won with 49 percent

1992 George H.W. Bush won with 68 percent

1996 Bob Dole won with 45 percent

2000 George W. Bush won with 53 percent

2004 George W. Bush was uncontested

Source: Almanac of American Politics