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Palmeto Family Council's Stump and Straw Poll: Dancing in Dixie With the Devout

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The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project. Read more OffTheBus coverage and get involved by clicking here.

Conventional wisdom, the polls and the SC press have been in agreement: Giuliani's in the lead. He's the man to beat. Tough enough. America's Mayor. When it comes to the threat of another terrorist attack, he's practically packing heat. Fear trumps family values any day of the week. Even on Sunday.

Not so fast. Maybe the South is looking for a new partner.

On Thursday, September 20th, the Palmetto Family Council held their Stump and Straw Poll & Barbecue in Columbia. Nearly 600 conservatives attended the event, eager to share pork and politics with Republican candidates for the presidency. John McCain, Fred Thompson and Ron Paul joined the crowd by telephone, speechifying for all they were worth. Romney sent his regrets via video; he was "busy raising money" for his campaign. Sam Brownback had to cancel, a vote and Senate business kept him in D.C.

Only former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Rep.Duncan Hunter (R-Calif) came south to meet, greet and eat. Bluegrass music filled the air and sweet-tea (one word in the deep South) flowed like--well, wine.

A grand time was had by all. Pols spoke to the issues of the war (for the most part, Hooray!), strong families (Yippee!), opposition to gay marriage (Hallelujah!), and ending abortion (Now you're talkin'!). No groundbreaking policy pronouncements were forthcoming. No matter. Like Dubya tells us, there's a lot to be said for consistency.

The Palmetto Family Council is a non-profit group formed in 1994 in association with James Dobson's Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council. Its mission is "...working through the centers of present biblical principles...committed to promoting those things that strengthen the family and decreasing those things that are destructive..." They see the importance of victory in Iraq, frown on Hollywood, gay marriage and women-who-choose.

No less a Southern religious icon than Jerry Falwell suggested the ever popular social sins agenda might be side-stepped in 2008. What's more important than the family values dance card: adultery, sex, abortion, sex, gays, sex, the sanctity of marriage and stem cells? D-I-V-O-R-C-E? Nope. National security. We need a tough guy in the Oval Office. Someone who, no matter what his sins, will keep us safe. From Al Qaeda. From Liberals.

Falwell gave the religious right tacit permission to hold their noses and change partners right in the middle of the old Texas Two-step. No more "It's all about moral character" song and dance. What would have driven them right around the family values-morality bend a few years ago is perfectly acceptable now. A candidate or two with fidelity problems and a fractured-family past? No problem. One who's happy to change his every position on sin and public policy to one-size-fits-all-believers faster than you can say "What exactly is a Mormon, anyway?" is just fine.

But the PFC is calling a new tune in South Carolina. Or a reprise of the old one--and it had a great hook and was easy to dance to, as the votes showed when they were finally tallied.

The three-hour event ended with the vote: Huckabee, 206; Paul, 179; Thompson, 43; Brownback, 29; Hunter, 25; Romney, 14; NC businessman Daniel Gilbert, 12; McCain, 10; Alabama physician Hugh Cort, 7; Giuliani, 5.

The only major candidate who chose not to participate at all was "I-don't-do-straw-polls" Rudy. When his absence by choice was announced, the crowd booed.

Seems the vote defied Jerry Falwell, conventional wisdom, polls and the press. Soft-spoken Baptist preacher Huckabee won the night. Anti-war Ron Paul finished a strong second. McCain was beaten by a businessman nobody ever heard of; Giuliani, the favorite, lost to both of them and to the Alabama doc. Last place.

Southerners can be stubborn. Ornery as hell. We may come to the dance with one guy but if he steps on our toes, we'll darn sure leave with somebody else. At the end of the night we might just surprise everybody.

Read more OffTheBus coverage and get involved by clicking here.