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Photo illustration by Krieg Barrie

Palmetto peloton

Politics | With the primary calendar shifting forward, the leading GOP presidential candidates remain in a surprisingly close pack in the important South Carolina race. Perry leads national leader Romney, but not by much, and Cain is gaining ground

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C.-If U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., wants to shed his image as the congressman who yelled, "You lie," when President Barack Obama told Congress that his healthcare plan wouldn't cover illegal immigrants, some of Wilson's constituents aren't ready to oblige.

During a packed town hall meeting with voters in Lexington, S.C., in late September, Wilson opened with grave remarks about record unemployment and soaring national debt. But the first written question from an audience member began with a tribute to the 2009 incident: "Congressman Wilson, thank you for your correct response to the president of 'You lie.'"

The congressman-who had apologized for the timing of his outburst two years ago-shifted uncomfortably as the Lexington crowd cheered in agreement. But he grew more confident with the second half of the feisty question: "Can we count on Republicans to stand up to the massive spending of the last four years, the liberal mainstream media, and a radical president?"

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Wilson had a ready answer: "We have to shift the numbers in Congress." But this crowd had its sights on a bigger prize, as another audience member asked: "In your opinion, what will our country look like if the GOP loses Congress and the White House next year?"

It's a question that pinpoints the angst of many Republicans across South Carolina and the rest of the country as the GOP presidential primaries loom less than three months away. For South Carolina, the question is especially urgent: The Republican who has won the state's early primary contest has won the GOP nomination for the last three decades.

This season, the state plans to hold its contest earlier than ever. Florida officials upended the primary calendar in September by announcing they would buck Republican National Committee rules that require most states to wait until March 6 to conduct primaries.

When a Florida election committee announced a Jan. 31 contest, South Carolina officials preserved their first-in-the-South primary by bumping their contest from early February to Jan. 21. That means the three other early voting states-Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada-will likely move their GOP contests to early January, or even late December.

Since time is growing short, and what happens in South Carolina is a crucial opening salvo in the battle for the White House, examining the race here offers an early glimpse into Republican politics nationwide. So far, the Palmetto State is proving this much: Economic issues are king, social issues won't be forgotten, and the race for conservative votes is more fluid than many expected.

By many estimates, South Carolina should be Rick Perry country: The professing Christian and pro-life governor of Texas embraces the Bible, babies, and barbeque. Perry's wife, Anita, told a packed gathering of South Carolina voters at the grand opening of her husband's campaign headquarters in the state capital of Columbia: "We have the same values, we like the same food, we kinda talk the same talk."

But in a Southern state where Perry seems like a natural fit, the candidate finds himself in a tight contest with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon candidate polling well in a state full of conservative evangelicals: A Winthrop University poll released on Sept. 20 showed Perry leading Romney in South Carolina by only 3 percentage points. Just three weeks earlier, another poll showed Perry leading Romney by 17 points.

That's a significant boost for Romney: Despite heavily investing cash and campaign time in South Carolina in the 2008 primary cycle, the presidential candidate finished fourth here. (Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., edged out former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for the win.)

The narrowing gap comes after Perry's early surge when he entered the race in late August. The candidate's searing poll numbers cooled after a few weeks on the campaign trail and a few less-than-stellar debate performances. And the Winthrop poll deserves some historical context: During the same period last election cycle, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Sen. Fred Thompson led the race in South Carolina. Both candidates fizzled before mid-primary season.

But despite those realities, the recent numbers at least show that Romney is faring better in South Carolina than last primary season, and that he's competitive in a state where he's spent less time and money so far.

South Carolina State Treasurer Curtis Loftis-a conservative Republican and a Southern Baptist-endorsed Romney in late August. After a recent campaign breakfast in Columbia headlined by Romney's wife, Ann, Loftis explained why he thought the candidate had gained more traction this time around: "It's a different world."

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