GREENVILLE, South Carolina — Republican voters in this Bible Belt state are still yearning for a bedrock conservative as their presidential candidate, even as Mitt Romney seeks to win them over.
“I don’t understand why he’s running in South Carolina,” said Myron Chorbagian at a conservative forum here, adding Romney “is not what we call a conservative.”
His daughter Karissa, who accompanied him at the forum organized by the pro-life group Planned Parenthood, was even less convinced.
“I’m not a big fan of Romney. To me, he seems more like a politician, he doesn’t seem very sincere,” she said.
South Carolina votes on Saturday to choose its candidate to be the Republican standard-bearer in the November election against Democratic President Barack Obama.
And Thursday’s surprise announcement that Texas Governor Rick Perry was quitting the race and endorsing firebrand former House speaker Newt Gingrich could see the race here turned on its head.
Romney, who has been eclipsing Gingrich in the polls by double digits, had been seen as the frontrunner, and a win in South Carolina could increase his cloak of invincibility. But Gingrich has been nibbling away at his lead, and might just become the candidate of choice for the conservatives.
According to the local newspaper The Slate, some 60 percent of Republican primary voters say they are evangelical Christians and faith plays an important role in the elections here.
“I’m worried that Romney might win the nomination,” said Jim Haregett. “He’s been a little bit ruthless in his business and ruthlessness could be a problem to be president.”
He pointed to former US senator Rick Santorum, saying: “He’s been for all the issues we’re for in South Carolina,” highlighting such things as “welfare reform, anti-abortion.
“He’s been for all the types of things close to Christian values,” Haregett added.
And while many here are wary of Romney’s Mormon faith, Gingrich’s admitted adultery and his three marriages may also not sit comfortably with voters.
“I would prefer a Christian man” as president “but it is more important that he embraces Christian principles,” said Chorbagian, talking about Romney.
Buddy Witherspoon, a former state party leader, admits that he, like many other South Carolinians, has been slow to warm to the former Massachusetts governor. But he could make his peace with the party’s decision to nominate Romney, if it does.
The president “is a role model. If he’s not a moral man, he can’t be a role model,” Witherspoon said. “If he’s the candidate, we need to be all behind him,” he said of the millionaire businessman.
Republican voters in the early presidential contests seemed intent on finding an anybody-but-Romney candidate, put off by his slick campaign and lack of rock-solid conservative convictions — as evidenced by his largely centrist record while he led liberal Massachusetts.
Witherspoon argued that Romney has been a work in progress, moving somewhat to the right in recent years, making him more appealing to some voters.
Romney “is more a conservative today than he was before,” Witherspoon said.
Political observers point out that that there are problems with the other Republicans who remain in the nomination race.
Libertarian Ron Paul to the left of Romney is seen as too quirky, Santorum as too inexperienced and Gingrich is said by some to be too erratic and mercurial.
And there could be historical precedent here. Since 1980, every Republican who has won in the South Carolina primary has gone on to be crowned his party’s nominee.