Evangelicals Key to South Carolina GOP Primary

With just days to go before the primary, the evangelical policy group named the Palmetto Council has mailed out more than 100,000 DVDs showcasing the stump speeches of the Republican presidential candidates. The disc is titled "Still Undecided."

The director of the group, Oran Smith, says that even his own board of directors are split among four candidates.

"I think South Carolinians traditionally have not only supported candidates that were consistent with their values, but they wanted to support someone who had a chance of winning," he said.

Smith's DVDs will join the hundreds of thousands of mailers and fliers that have already jammed mailboxes here, not to mention the constant barrage of campaign phone calls. For undecided voters like Larry Johnson of Cayce, S.C., faith is the paramount issue.

"Being a Christian, I really believe we need to get more grounded in real Christian values," Johnson said. "There is a lot of talk with all the candidates at the local state and national level, but the depth doesn't seem to be there."

Since there appear to be so many voters who have yet to make up their minds, it is not only the word of God that is being spread. It is also the word of negative campaign tactics.

One voter, Bill Foltz, says he was turned off by so-called push polling that appeared to him to support Republican presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee's campaign has disavowed any connection to any such calls.

During the "push-polling" call that Foltz received, Foltz says the caller trashed the other Republican candidates — talking about how rich former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is and calling Arizona Sen. John McCain a millionaire.

Foltz says Huckabee does not need this type of help. At the Northside Baptist Church in Columbia, S.C., where Foltz is attending a midweek service, many people are considering voting for Huckabee.

Fellow churchgoer, Angie Weathersby, appreciates Huckabee's firm set of beliefs. "He's a Christian, and very pro family and just puts family first and I feel that's a very important issue."

Donald Clark likes what he sees as Huckabee's decisiveness. "What impresses me most is that he doesn't waffle. There's a straight stance from Huckabee. He has a very firm set of beliefs and that is what he sticks to."

Huckabee's victory in Iowa has made voters like Weathersby and Clark sit up and take notice. Their vote, they say, is guided by their faith. But some voters, such as Wayne Morris and Annette Faulkenberry, say their faith keeps them from voting for Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon.

"I really look at Mormons as more of cult," Faulkenberry says. "I know they have tried to explain that the best they can, but when it comes down to that, I only have one god and Jesus Christ. The way to my god is through Jesus Christ, my Lord Savior."

Other evangelicals say they intend to vote with their heads, not their hearts. Many of them are drawn to Sen. John McCain.

Rev. Rocky Purvis, the pastor of Northside Baptist Church offers this advice to his flock: "The Bible says righteousness exalts a nation. We as believers should be seeking to be electing people we are convinced are going to be leading people to righteousness to honor God."

S.C. Snapshot: How Candidates Woo the Faithful

Evangelicals make up 40 percent to 50 percent of South Carolina's population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Collectively, the Christian conservatives showed their strength in 2000, when they backed George W. Bush over John McCain — reversing the momentum in that year's race.

But South Carolinians do not always vote as a single bloc or at the beckoning of a single candidate. In 1988, for example, the evangelical Rev. Pat Robertson came in third in the state's GOP primary, behind then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and then-Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.

Instead, the state's Christian conservatives are moved more by issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and same-sex marriage, says Clemson University political scientist and former GOP consultant J. David Woodward.

Powerful outside groups such as the South Carolina Citizens for Life and the National Rifle Association have been adept at fundraising and reaching out to potential voters, Woodward says.

In recent decades, religion has been less of an overt touchstone for Democratic candidates, who have not made the same religious appeals as their GOP counterparts. But religion remains an important undercurrent in the Democratic race, since the candidates often hold events in African-American churches and with African-American religious leaders, says John Greene, a senior fellow with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

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