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.
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.
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.
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."