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Palmetto peloton

"Palmetto peloton" Continued...

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

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."

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