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Hard times in S.C. make the economy the dominant issue

By David Lightman and William Douglas, McClatchy Newspapers –

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — South Carolina’s economy has been battered in recent years, and as a result, the dominant issue here as Saturday’s Republican primary approaches is how to get people working and confident again.

As a result, the social issues like abortion and gay rights that are traditionally so important to GOP success here have had a negligible role in most voters’ calculus.

“If you don’t have a job, it doesn’t matter as much what someone’s stance is on gay rights,” said Attorney General Alan Wilson. Added Gov. Nikki Haley, “Everyone in this state knows someone without a job.”

The Great Recession staggered South Carolina, particularly its manufacturing and construction sectors. The jobless rate has been at or above 10 percent for nearly three years, dipping slightly to a seasonally adjusted 9.9 percent in November, still well above that month’s national rate of 8.7 percent.

A Clemson University poll of South Carolina last month found that the top three issue concerns in the state were federal spending, unemployment and partisan bickering in Washington. Social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and crime barely registered, at 2 percent to 3 percent, said Clemson political scientist Dave Woodard, who’s also a Republican consultant.

“The economy is driving the election, no question about that,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Still, evangelicals remain a powerful force in South Carolina. “You also have to understand that social conservatives aren’t going to let them (candidates) ignore their issues. Social conservatives aren’t going to go away,” Land said.

“It’s no coincidence that all the candidates, even the libertarian (Texas Rep. Ron Paul), are against abortion,” said John Green, an Akron University political science professor who studies politics and religion.

On the campaign trail, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has stressed his religious and moral values repeatedly, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum emphasizes his strong opposition to abortion. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich touts his record as a champion of all manner of conservative causes.

But there’s little evidence that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has suffered much politically because he changed his view on abortion over time. When he ran for governor in 2002, he said he would uphold and not seek to change the law protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion; today he’s firmly anti-abortion.

Voters say that while Romney’s past bothers them, they have other things on their minds.

In downtown Florence recently, Brian Bynum was wearing a Tim Tebow T-shirt — Tebow is the deeply religious Denver Broncos quarterback — and said social issues certainly matter.

But asked the most important issue, Bynum didn’t hesitate: “The economy.”

“Those issues are just being pushed to the foreground because so many people are hurting,” said Bynum, a Florence banker. He wants a president who will take bold action and likes Gingrich, because “in my gut, I trust him.”

There’s no distinct voting preference among those seeking economic answers. They find the candidates largely sound the same — all pledge to lower taxes, make dramatic cuts in federal spending, eliminate onerous regulations, and so on.

Bruce Howard has been out of work for more than a year, since a textile plant closed. An engineer from Florence, he’s 58 and finds “the biggest problem is health insurance. People don’t want to hire an older guy.”

He’s got no insurance and thinks the 2010 federal health care law, which will require nearly everyone to get coverage by 2014, may help people like him. Romney signed a version of that law in Massachusetts.

He may, Howard said, “vote for the most conservative candidate, since that might give (President Barack) Obama the best chance.”

Small business owners focus first on the economy. Brent Tiller started his gourmet New York Butcher Shoppe in Florence in 2008, as the recession was deepening, and “it’s been a struggle,” he said.

He’s bothered by what he sees as the erosion of morality in this country — he has two small children and finds that he can’t turn on the television without seeing what he calls objectionable behavior.

But this year it’s more important to him to find a candidate who will lower taxes. “When your business is not making money, it’s really tough to see that tax money go out the door,” Tiller said.

Older business folks are also hurting. Bo Osborne has run a grading and paving company in Florence for years. “You need less government,” he said, “but on the other hand, the only jobs I’m doing are the government-funded jobs.”

He’s been selling off equipment to keep financially afloat. He knows there’s no magic answer. “I like some ideas from all five of the candidates,” Osborne said. “If we could elect all five people president I’d be happy.”

But with uncertainty prevailing among many, will a candidate’s resolve on social issues and his personal history be a tiebreaker? Sometimes.

“I like Perry’s personal life,” said Barbara Shirley, an insurance and securities sales agent. Perry and his only wife, Anita, have been married since 1982. In contrast, Newt Gingrich’s two divorces trouble some conservatives.

Such judgments, though, are hard to find among voters, as the campaigns push their economic messages hard.

In northwest South Carolina, the heart of the state’s Bible Belt, “Mitt Romney is carpet-bombing the Upstate with (robo) phone calls and mail,” said Woodard of Clemson.

“I get two phone calls and two pieces of mail a day from Romney. He has a sophisticated operation and they are barraging the conservative base with so many messages where they are confused who to vote for. He’s got social conservatives neutralized,” Woodard said.

Or just distracted. At a time when economic fears are heightened, it doesn’t take much to make people pay attention to such issues.

“It’s the old adage,” said Wilson, the attorney general, “that people vote with their wallets.”

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