SPARTANBURG, S.C.--This state comes in third. It’s not first, like Iowa, and New Hampshire goes second.
But South Carolina always gets it right. In every presidential primary since 1980, the state has backed the candidate that eventually clinched the Republican nomination. The state is more diverse than New Hampshire, less evangelical than Iowa, and bigger than both of them.
This week, the well-trodden campaign trail between Des Moines and Manchester veers south on Saturday for a debate focused on foreign policy at Wofford College. Voters looking for clarity in the most unpredictable primary in decades won’t find it here. Prominent Republicans see former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the upswing, while businessman Herman Cain fends off allegations of sexual harassment. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is trying to recover from his worst fumble in a debate, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is struggling to win over social conservatives in the Bible Belt.
“At this stage, I see it developing into a race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich,’’ said veteran Republican strategist Warren Tompkins, who advised Romney in 2008. Over a dinner of fried oysters and grits not far from his office near the state Capitol, he added, “You shake it all out, and you see two adults on the stage.’’
Nearly two months before the state’s Jan. 21 primary, 68 percent of South Carolina Republicans were undecided in the latest Clemson University Palmetto Poll. Of those who did pick a candidate, 68 percent said they were likely to change their mind.
“I think it’s the most fluid, undecided race this far along that I’ve ever experienced,’’ said Karen Floyd, a former chairwoman of the state Republican Party, in an interview in her downtown office. “I’ll bet on anything, but I would not bet on this presidential race.’’
In the Palmetto Poll, Romney received 22 percent support from Republicans, while Cain had 20 percent and Gingrich 10 percent. Perry’s Southern and Christian roots looked like a perfect fit for this state, but he’s at 9 percent. The rest of the candidates polled in the single digits.
“None of them are really exciting me at this point,’’ said Bob Pettit, a 78-year-old former Presbyterian minister, after voting in Tuesday’s local elections at Spartanburg High School. “They’re all speaking against the president, but I want to see somebody with a plan to get us where we need to go. I’m waiting for that person to come forward.’’
The race’s volatility has some South Carolina Republicans talking heresy.
Typically in GOP primaries, Iowa backs one candidate, New Hampshire picks another, and South Carolina proudly breaks the tie. In 2012, with Romney unable to build a commanding lead, a handful of candidates struggling to present themselves as a strong alternative, and a less front-loaded primary calendar, South Carolina’s vaunted role as an early kingmaker hangs in the balance.
“I think that legacy may take a ding,’’ said Republican consultant Chip Felkel, who worked on George W. Bush’s campaigns here in 2000 and 2004. “You’ve got a national front-runner the Republican base doesn’t like, and a tea party that’s so disparate you don’t know whether anyone can harness it.… I don’t think we’re going to anoint anyone this year.’’
The GOP establishment's views are as muddled as the voters'. Gov. Nikki Haley, who backed Romney in 2008 as a state legislator, has not yet committed to a candidate. Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party icon who also favored Romney in the last election, said last week that he won’t endorse anyone at all. Other prominent elected officials and party leaders are splintered among Romney, Perry, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
The one thing that unites South Carolina Republicans is their hostility to President Obama and his stewardship of the economy. Unemployment statewide is at 11 percent, 2 points higher than the national average.
The latest Winthrop Poll pegged Obama’s job approval at just 40 percent. Reflecting a widespread distrust, 75 percent described Obama as a socialist, 36 percent said he was definitely or probably born in another country, and nearly 30 percent said he’s a Muslim.
Republicans voting in local elections on Tuesday said they’re looking for a conservative standard-bearer--but more importantly, a general-election candidate with the chops to win.
“I’m just looking for someone to beat Obama,’’ said Thurman Cecil, 71, who owned a construction firm before his retirement. “I didn’t think he was qualified to be president in the first place. He doesn’t have the background or the ability.’’
That’s the consensus, whether you’re talking to religious conservatives upstate, veterans in the Midlands, fiscal hawks and retirees along the coast, or business owners sprinkled throughout. At least one out of five Republican primary voters lives in the northwest corner of the state that includes Spartanburg County and its even more conservative neighbor Greenville. If you’re looking for middle-of-the-road Republicans or Democrats, go southeast to Columbia and keep going, all the way across the state to Charleston.
Saturday’s Republican presidential debate sponsored by National Journal and CBS News will be a first for Spartanburg. It never even hosted a gubernatorial debate until last year.
“We’re the buckle of the Bible Belt,’’ said LaDonna Ryggs, chairwoman of the local GOP, although there’s more than a few Southern localities competing for that mantle. “Drive around and you’ll see a church on every corner, sometimes two, and most of them Baptist.’’
In a region known for its caloric offerings, there’s also dueling Krispy Kremes across Church Street downtown.
Ryggs talked local politics over lunch of a “burger a-plenty’’--a hamburger covered with a heap of fries and onion rings--at the Beacon Drive-in Restaurant in Spartanburg, a popular campaign stop. Clippings of George W. Bush’s visits hang in the entry. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was here in August. She and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, whose campaigns emphasize family values more than any of the others, have spent the most time here of any candidate, according to The Washington Post’s candidate tracker.
Another frequent visitor is Gingrich, who has been slowly rebuilding his campaign since a staff mutiny over the summer; he recently announced the campaign has nine staffers, probably the largest team in the state. Before Saturday night’s debate, he’s participating in a “tailgate town hall’’ at Furman University and opening his state headquarters in Greenville.
Other than Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Romney has spent the least amount of time in the state--only five days since June, according to the candidate tracker. As if to make up for his absence, Romney campaigned on Friday at Mutt’s BBQ in deeply conservative Greenville County.
“I think he knows there’s an opportunity,’’ said Doug Smith, a former state representative and a lawyer in nearby Spartanburg who has not endorsed a candidate.
But Romney, a Mormon from Massachusetts who has flip-flopped on abortion and gay marriage, is a tough sell here. “I’m a Christian and he’s a Muslim,’’ said Kathryn Wilson, 92, a former science teacher in Spartanburg. Told he is a Mormon, she said, “They don’t have it straight either.’’