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South Carolina is the new battleground in the Republican presidential race. It's the first primary in the South, and Mitt Romney brings momentum from back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. But NPR's Debbie Elliott reports that the state is also new terrain for Romney, where he has to appeal to religious conservatives and Tea Party voters.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly has printed bumper stickers reading: We Pick Presidents - referring to the state's track record of selecting the eventual Republican nominee for 30 years now.
CHAD CONNELLY: This is where the battle royale is going to take place.
ELLIOTT: He says former Massachusetts Governor Romney comes in with a strong lead, but the nature of the electorate here leaves an opening for a rival like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. About half of likely voters in the primary are evangelicals, and, historically, social issues have been important. They still are, Connelly says, but not necessarily the first thing on people's minds.
CONNELLY: Right now, everybody's attention is focused on jobs and economy, but there is a threshold of acceptance level. You know, you got to be pro-life. I mean, goodness gracious, if you're not taking care of life, you don't care about anything else. And traditional marriage and traditional values matter.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You have a thought for some cheese with grits?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, please.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: Over breakfast at the Lizard's Thicket country-style restaurant in Columbia this morning, voters did rank the economy as their most pressing concern.
BOBBY BRANHAM: Unemployment, absolutely.
ELLIOTT: Bobby Branham of Chapin works for an insurance company. He says South Carolina's nearly 10 percent unemployment rate has taken a toll.
BRANHAM: I'm fortunate I have a job, but there's a lot of people out there that don't. I do real estate on the side, and I see a lot of foreclosures. And it's sad when I go out there and I'm looking at all of these homes that people just had to run away from. They're desperate. And I think the politicians are really out of touch.
ELLIOTT: Branham says he's a Republican-leaning independent and plans to vote for Mitt Romney because of his business background and executive experience. At a nearby table, Nicholas Thorpe is having his usual Wednesday breakfast with his Sunday school class from Columbia First Baptist Church. He's been out of work for six months now and is decidedly behind Mitt Romney.
NICHOLAS THORPE: I've been able to reconcile my faith differences with him.
ELLIOTT: He's talking about Romney's Mormonism, a faith some evangelicals don't believe is true Christianity. Thorpe says that's not the point.
THORPE: I look at Romney's moral leanings and directions that he wants to take the country and find out they still line up with my belief systems, and feel I can support him and still be a Southern Baptist, if you will.
ELLIOTT: But other candidates are hoping to gain ground by portraying Romney as out of line with traditional South Carolina values. Newt Gingrich's camp started running this ad today.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his position from pro-abortion to pro-life? He governed pro-abortion.
ELLIOTT: As Gingrich, Santorum and Rick Perry all reach for social conservatives here, voters have yet to coalesce around any one of them as the alternative to frontrunner Romney.
DR. CURT BAIR: Nobody in this current field excites me.
ELLIOTT: Curt Bair is a doctor in Columbia.
BAIR: I think Ron Paul is a good man. I think he's a constitutionalist, but I don't think he stands a chance in this election. Newt Gingrich, I think, is a fairly conservative guy, but he strikes me as a career politician. And Romney is just way too moderate for me.
ELLIOTT: Over the next 10 days, Romney will be trying to convince South Carolina Republicans otherwise. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Columbia.