Huffpost Politics

South Carolina Primary Election 2012: GOP Candidates Fail To Inspire Social Conservatives

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GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The Greenville-Spartanburg area, home to many of South Carolina's evangelical voters, should be prime political ground for Rick Santorum, a longtime anti-abortion crusader who was embraced by a group of Christian leaders meeting last weekend in Texas.

Or maybe for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who talks forcefully of his conversion to Catholicism and his hope for redemption for past sins, including infidelity.

It would have seemed ideal for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who led more than 30,000 people in prayer in Houston last August.

Yet none of these candidates appears to have captivated this area's religious conservatives ahead of Saturday's Republican presidential primary. Perry fell so short that he was ending his campaign Thursday and endorsing Gingrich.

The unease and indecision among South Carolina evangelicals may help explain why former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon and former abortion-rights supporter, appears to be doing reasonably well, although politicians warn that the game isn't over.

South Carolina's religious conservatives are deeply worried about the country, and thoroughly convinced that President Barack Obama must go. But in interviews this week at several religious and political events, nearly all GOP voters expressed greater interest in God and the Christian community than in politicians and government. They exhibited only the vaguest hopes that this year's elections will make a real difference.

"I'm concerned that we don't have anyone that can fix this problem," said Charlie Davis of Anderson, who carried a Bible into a prayer gathering that drew about 400 people to Greenville Tuesday night.

Like virtually everyone interviewed in the region, Davis, a 30-year-old elementary school physical education teacher, said he will vote Saturday. And like virtually all the others, he said he was undecided, and he showed little enthusiasm for anyone.

"I am standing back, watching," said Dan Benham, 67, who also attended the prayer gathering, called "The Response."

"I'm concerned about life in America," he said, especially what he sees as an epidemic of abortions.

All the GOP candidates oppose legalized abortion, and Santorum is especially forceful on the issue. So it would seem that Benham, who owns a small auto parts assembly company, has a wealth of choices.

But when nudged on how democracy might improve the nation, Benham said: "I'm here to pray. I'm looking to ask the Lord."

Even Perry, the only candidate to address the prayer group, two days before he dropped out, suggested that elections are not the answer. The nation's hope, he said, "is not in government. That hope is in a loving God."

God's agenda, Perry told the crowd of 400, "is not a political agenda. He's smarter than that."

Organizers of "The Response" also seemed ambivalent about the proper role of religion and politics. They invited all the candidates to speak, and encouraged political reporters to attend.

But David Sliker of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City told the audience: "America's solution isn't coming through a politically brilliant idea. It's going to come through the righteousness of its people."

He said people should tell God "you're the leader we want."

Interviews with two dozen GOP voters over two days in no way constitute a scientific survey. But they give a flavor of political conversations in the campaign's final days here in the home of the fundamental Christian Bob Jones University.

Time after time, religious conservatives expressed alarm and sadness at what they see as the country's drift from righteousness and from taking responsibility for one's self and one's neighbors. Yet almost no one was able to point to a presidential candidate with enthusiasm.

"I'm hoping that whoever is in power will be the one that Jesus wants," said Andrew Ratchford, 23, who studied political science in college and knows the campaign issues well.

Tian Ware, 45, of Prosperity, S.C., went to see Santorum on Wednesday at the Beacon Drive-In restaurant, a Spartanburg landmark.

She might vote for him, she said. Or maybe Gingrich. Ware said she would make her decision "on just a feeling. I get feelings about people."

If Ware, who has three grandchildren, is lukewarm about the candidates, she is passionate about the issues.

"I'm offended that my children couldn't pray in public schools if they wanted to," she said. "If I say `Oh my God' in front of the wrong person, I'll get arrested."

Standing nearby was Jim McCabe, who recently retired as chief information officer for Milliken, a major textile and chemical company. "I just came to see," he said of Santorum. "I'm not really pleased with any of them."

McCabe said he wants "an alternative to Mitt Romney," and probably will vote for Gingrich or Santorum. He sounded underwhelmed.

McCabe and Ware are the type of socially conservative voters that one of Romney's rivals needs to inspire, excite, set on fire. In exit polls from the 2008 South Carolina GOP primary, 60 percent of voters said they were evangelical.

Rep. Ron Paul doesn't play well with these voters, largely because they see him as unwilling to defend Israel, a land that holds special meaning to many devout Christians. That leaves Santorum and Gingrich, both of whom can make legitimate arguments to the Christian right.

And they have tried. Along with Perry, they attended an anti-abortion forum Wednesday in Greenville, declaring their conviction that human life begins at conception.

Santorum, who endeared himself to many Christian activists in Iowa, seemed to catch a big break last week. A loose-knit group of prominent social conservatives voted in Texas to back him as the best alternative to Romney.

In this week's interviews with Greenville-Spartanburg Republicans, however, no one mentioned the event.

Gingrich, meanwhile, seemed to get a bump from Monday's debate in Myrtle Beach, according to polls and anecdotal evidence. But if there was a rising tide for Gingrich in the Spartanburg-Greenville region, it wasn't obvious.

"I'm very concerned about this country," said Blaine Nuckolls, 71, a retired police officer who lives in Greenville. "We need leadership, starting at the top," he said.

He said he was trying to decide between Perry and Santorum. Nuckolls said he likes Gingrich, "but I don't think he's got enough backing to get elected."

Bill Campbell, a retired minister from Greenville, said he fears for the nation's future. Americans are crushing future generations with federal debt, he said.

"Most candidates seem not to have a grasp on how serious it is," Campbell said. Paul comes closest, he said, although he hasn't ruled out Santorum.

"Gingrich is interesting, but too insiderish," Campbell said, and Romney is far too establishment.

"We need someone to make big waves in Washington," Campbell said. He stared solemnly. He didn't look optimistic.

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