S.C. Voters, Economic Woes In Election Spotlight

Much of the early attention in the 2012 presidential race has been on Iowa, which holds the first caucus, and New Hampshire, the first primary state. But also in the spotlight is South Carolina, which holds the South's first primary, in late February. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, though, the Palmetto state's economy lags behind the nation's, putting the issue atop voter concerns.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Couple of months ago people were marveling that the 2012 presidential campaign had not really begun. Nobody is marveling anymore.

LOUISE KELLY: Though the field may not yet be complete, candidates are campaigning steadily in the early states to vote. That would be Iowa, New Hampshire and the state we go to next, South Carolina.

INSKEEP: In that state the economy is recovering even more slowly than in the country as a whole. NPR's Don Gonyea has been spending time in South Carolina.

DON GONYEA: South Carolina is a conservative state, no question. In presidential elections it's gone Republican every time since 1964, except for 1976 when a southerner and born-again Christian Jimmy Carter was on the ballot. As for the nature of the state's Republican Party...

INSKEEP: Sometimes people look at South Carolina as kind of being the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. And to a certain extend that is true.

GONYEA: That's Winthrop University political scientist Aldolphus Belk, Jr., who adds, however, that that perception sometimes overlooks the other groups you find in large numbers within the South Carolina GOP, including Tea Party conservatives who have a hero in the state's Republican U.S. Senator Jim DeMint.

Chad Connelly is the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party.

LOUISE KELLY: So we've got a good blend of the fiscal conservative, the social conservatives and the military conservatives. So the three parts of the Republican Party, if you will, are well represented in South Carolina.

GONYEA: And even though social issues never really recede in the state, polls show that people are more concerned about the economy than anything else these days. Professor Belk says voters will want to know that a candidate shares their values on issues such as abortion, but the first question they are asking is...

LOUISE KELLY: What are you going to do to help the national economy turn around and in particular what sorts of things do you have in mind for the folk down here in south Carolina?

GONYEA: As a result, the GOP tug of war between evangelicals and fiscal conservatives seen in Iowa and elsewhere this year seems somewhat muted in South Carolina. That was certainly the case at a Michele Bachmann rally in the town of Aiken last week. As music blared from loudspeakers and the candidate left the stage, Eileen Pajaris was in the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIVE MUSIC)

LOUISE KELLY: Economically, if you're not strong people get scared and everything starts to go downward from there and that's what really frightens me more than everything.

GONYEA: She says the economy affects everyone in a state where the jobless rate rose to 10.5 percent in June. Just up the street, 35-year-old Nicole Sampietro was leaving the rally with her teenage son and her Jack Russell terrier. She says the mortgage crisis hit the state hard and the effects are still there.

LOUISE KELLY: I think jobs is definitely the issue. I think South Carolina's hurting more because so many of these people were contractors and were involved in that industry in some way, shape or form.

GONYEA: And history does show that despite the strong social conservatism within the South Carolina GOP, primary voters there have a history also of picking the winner. Every GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan has won the South Carolina Primary, even when they were not the most socially conservative in the field.

LOUISE KELLY: Thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first in the first in the south primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

GONYEA: John McCain's victory in the state 2008 came despite the fact that Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister and winner of the Iowa caucuses, was on the ballot. Huckabee, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and several other Republican candidates divided two-thirds of the primary voter, allowing McCain to win with a plurality of just one-third.

Something very much like that could happen again in 2012, especially if the economy remains as weak in the state and as dominant a factor in South Carolinians thinking as it is this summer.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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