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?"
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."
For Loftis, that difference is concentrated in an economy that soured nationwide a few months after the GOP primary season in 2008. The economic woes are particularly acute in South Carolina: The state has an unemployment rate of 11.1 percent-the fourth-highest in the nation. In rural South Carolina counties like Marion and Allendale, the unemployment rate reaches nearly 20 percent.
That crisis could help boost Romney, a candidate touting his corporate background and business savvy. But Romney's not alone: Perry boasts of creating jobs as governor of Texas, and candidates like former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain are hammering their own job-centered credentials.
While the winning candidate is still undetermined, and other dark horse candidates could burst on the scene, for most South Carolina voters the prevailing question is set: How do we dig out of the economic mire?
Back at the town hall meeting in Lexington, that's the question on Darrell Harbour's mind. Harbour owns a small company here that relocates machinery for industrial plants and provides heavy rigging and crane work. He decries Obama's argument that regulating and taxing large corporations more aggressively will help a struggling economy, and he hopes for a GOP candidate who can reverse that trend.
Harbour offers a painful example: He says he lost a quarter million dollars in purchase orders last year when some of the large companies he services grew skittish about the economic uncertainty. "Don't tell me that beating up that big corporation doesn't affect me," he says. "It does-and it affects my guys."
The small business owner says that kind of uncertainty undercuts his ability to make plans and hire more workers. And he says increasing regulations makes business more expensive. For example, Harbour says some of the new machinery he bought this year came with designs imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): new (and more expensive) fuel tanks that require using diesel exhaust fuel (DEF) along with regular diesel fuel to reduce smog. "So I just paid $128,000 for a tractor that I have to buy DEF fluid for and put it in with the diesel fuel to make EPA regulations," he says. "And it costs $4 a gallon, plus the diesel fuel price."
But like other voters here, Harbour says he isn't sure which GOP candidate could best tackle the kind of economic problems that hound South Carolina and the rest of the country. "The only one that's made any comments that make a lot of sense was Herman Cain, and unfortunately I don't think he's going to be up there in the running," he says. But a week later Cain began a quick rise in polls nationally.
During the town hall meeting, the crowd burst into applause when Rep. Wilson mentioned Cain's tax reform plan. Afterwards, local resident Barbara Burchfield said she's intrigued by Cain, but hasn't settled on a candidate. But she does know that she's most concerned about the economy: "We'd like to see the government run more like a household-if you don't have the money, you don't spend it." And she believes something else: "The silent majority isn't going to be silent anymore."
Whether Republican voters will prevail as the majority next November isn't clear, though a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed that the majority of voters expect Obama to lose the 2012 election. That dynamic has added fresh enthusiasm for GOP voters eager to nominate a candidate who's not only electable in a general election, but desirable on a wide range of conservative issues.
In South Carolina, those voters include a broad swath of evangelicals and social conservatives who say that while the economy dominates the election cycle, social issues like abortion and gay marriage remain a deep concern.
For Romney-a self-proclaimed pro-life candidate who has struggled to overcome his pro-abortion past-that may mean significant hurdles with some voters here: The Winthrop poll showed Perry with a double-digit lead over Romney among evangelical voters in the state.
Ray Moore-a longtime conservative Christian activist in South Carolina-says he thinks Romney will face a steep challenge with social conservatives. Moore points to Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan that eventually included a $50 co-pay for abortions. And Moore says many conservative activists still hold Romney accountable for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts while he was governor.
If both Romney and Perry-whose poll numbers dipped after a Florida straw poll defeat-faltered in South Carolina, Moore thinks a door could open for other candidates like Cain or Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. Either way, Moore says the worsening climate for Democrats means that "Christians can vote for the best person. We can vote our conscience."
Randy Page-an evangelical, social conservative, and president of South Carolinians for Responsible Government-is still mulling the GOP slate. Page-also a board member of South Carolina Citizens for Life-met Romney during the last primary cycle, and says that he's comfortable with his pro-life position: "I do believe people can change."
Page also says he thinks social conservatives are interested in the whole picture for GOP candidates: "You can't break the litmus test-you have to be pro-life-but we're also concerned about where you stand on the budget and welfare reform and taxes."
Oran Smith-an evangelical and president of the conservative Palmetto Family Council (PFC)-says he thinks Romney's stated positions on social issues are relatively strong, but that he still faces an uphill battle to win the South Carolina contest.
Smith says Romney's halting answers to a question at a South Carolina debate regarding whether his vice president and cabinet appointees would hold pro-life convictions left some voters cold: "I think there was enough of a hiccup there that did not make him the first choice of some cultural and social conservatives."
Perry's campaign has unquestionably hit bumps: He still faces conservative challenges over his immigration policy that allows in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, and questions over his attempt to make the HPV vaccine mandatory for young girls in Texas. (The governor has since said he should have proposed allowing families to opt into the vaccine for the sexually transmitted disease.)
Still, Smith thinks those concerns won't fell the candidate, and that Perry likely has the best chance to win South Carolina, barring a major gaffe, a dark horse candidate, or a sea change endorsement for Romney by someone like influential Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. For Perry, a win here is critical, since a loss in South Carolina would likely be far more damaging than a loss for Romney, says Smith: "I think if Perry has problems here, Perry has problems."
Romney's Mormonism seems unlikely to create substantial political problems for him in this cycle. The candidate's religion drew more attention last time, but evangelicals like Page, Smith, and others don't think it's a major issue with voters during this cycle.
David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University, agrees with that assessment but says Romney's attempt to woo South Carolina voters still faces resistance: "I just cannot see South Carolina Republican voters voting for a Mormon governor from Massachusetts." That's especially true, says Woodard, when they have the choice of a Texas governor with a Christian background: "I think Perry's Christian associations, his football, his boots, his talkin', his ya'll-I think all of it will connect eventually."
Chad Connelly-chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and a board member at PFC-says connecting with conservatives will hinge on an understanding that fiscal issues and social issues work together: "I'm one of those people who thinks you can't separate the two." Policies that encourage hard work, marriage, and personal responsibility are key to encouraging conservative support, he says: "I think anyone who wins here is going to have to understand that."