S.C. Forum Joins Candidates, Christian Right

Christian conservatives invite Republican presidential candidates to a forum in South Carolina. It's an opportunity to take the temperature of religious conservative voters in an early primary state.

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Since 1980, no candidate has won the Republican presidential nomination without first winning the South Carolina Primary. It's the earliest primary in a southern state and the first where evangelical Christians make up a substantial number of Republican voters.

Last night, at what organizers called a pro-family political forum, none of the candidates emerged as a clear favorite.

From Columbia, South Carolina, NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: When Republican presidential hopefuls come through South Carolina, it's people like Cliff Wood(ph) they're trying to win over. Wood is a self-described values voter who casts his ballot for people he perceives as anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and pro-family. But with the South Carolina Primary less than four months away, Wood still is struggling to find a candidate he can support.

Mr. CLIFF WOOD (Conservative Voter): You know, there's no Ronald Reagan. There's not going to be, not likely. It's just not that clear-cut anymore, I don't think.

HOCHBERG: Wood, a retired insurance executive, says each of the leading Republicans has some flaw that makes voters like him wary. Many of the candidates, he says, have inconsistent records on social issues, while he feels others don't represent his values.

Mr. WOOD: There's some of them all over the place with their personal lives. And I hate to say it, but you've got religious issues involved, very hard to some people that are looking at that.

HOCHBERG: You're talking about Governor Romney with the religious issue?

Mr. WOOD: I think that's a big issue with him. Yeah.

HOCHBERG: Wood and about 600 other people turned out last night for a candidate forum sponsored by the Palmetto Family Council, a group that calls itself a defender of faith, family and freedom. Almost all the Republican presidential candidates were represented. A few appeared in person others spoke over the phone, and many tried to burnish their Christian credentials.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee referred to his background as a Baptist minister.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): For me, the language of Zion is not a second language, it's my native tongue, and I promise I will not forget who I am and where I've come from. And I won't forget who helped me get there. So, help me God.

HOCHBERG: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who appeared in a pre-recorded video didn't mention his Mormon faith, but pledged to protect traditional values. Arizona Senator John McCain on the phone from Washington said he's doing the Lord's work in the city of Satan. And former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson was one of several candidates who tried to reassure the group he'll bring a conservative social agenda to the White House.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Senator, Tennessee; Republican Presidential Candidate): On abortion-related matters, for example, I'm a 100 percent pro-life. I've supported the Defense of Marriage Act. The importance of judges. I know the difference between constitutionalists and judges who make it up as they go along based on their own social views.

HOCHBERG: In an informal straw poll after the speeches, Huckabee finished first while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the only major Republican to skip the event was last. But Palmetto Family Council president Oran Smith says evangelicals who represent more than a quarter of South Carolina's Republicans haven't unified behind any candidate yet.

Dr. ORAN SMITH (President, Palmetto Family Council): Clearly, there is not someone that is just gathering support as a snowball rolling downhill. And that's kind of frustrating when you're looking at November of next year. You want someone who is just going to be on the lips of everyone as the big star that's going to take you to the finish line. And at this point, no, we really don't have that.

HOCHBERG: Smith concedes that if that person doesn't emerge, evangelicals may have less influence in the primary. Still, most of the people at last night's forum said they can be counted on to vote Republican next fall even if the nominee is someone like Giuliani who many consider too liberal on social issues.

Cyndi Mosteller is a Republican leader from Charleston.

Ms. CYNDI MOSTELLER (Chairwoman, Charleston County Republican Party): Talking about Giuliani, that would be a forced choice for a conservative. But I would have to say we would not let that stop us from trying to not see a Hillary Clinton in the White House.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, if Senator Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she may be able to unwittingly do something no Republican has yet done this year, reunite evangelical conservatives and motivate them to vote.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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