Economy Trumps Social Issues in Conservative SC
South Carolina's Christian conservatives, personified by Bob Jones University presidents and alums, have both made and broken presidential campaigns.
GOP candidates have for decades turned to the right to woo them after coming out of relatively moderate New Hampshire, and no Republican candidate since 1980 has become the nominee without winning South Carolina and its Bible-driven voters for whom a solid stance against abortion, gay rights and other social issues was paramount.
This year, the economy has changed the pecking order.
Evangelicals and the social issues crowd still matter - and Republican presidential candidates are all but certain to air their positions on conservatives' concerns during a debate in Spartanburg, S.C., on Saturday. But that long-time pivotal constituency, like much of the country, is far more concerned about paychecks and food on the table. Meanwhile, the role played by the conservative Christian Bob Jones University and its leaders is waning.
Republican activist Alexia Newman runs a Spartanburg crisis pregnancy center and knows the social issues - faith, family, abortion and same sex marriage - are more of an undercurrent this election. Families, she said, are the fundamental economic unit - and they need money and jobs.
"Everybody is saying people have got to have jobs - and they do," Newman said. It's a stress on families and makes it challenge to push all the other issues. "They're all entwined," she said.
Talk to voters shopping for candidates and they're looking for anything but talk about abortion or same-sex marriages.
Bryan McLeod, a retired real estate agent from Moore, doesn't support gay rights but said he's more concerned about people having jobs, the national debt and the nation's borders being secure. Abortion and gay marriage? They're secondary, said McLeod, 66, and if a candidate is talking up those issues, "it seems like he's avoiding the real problems."
Gail Randall, a 54-year-old computer programmer in Greenville, said "it's all about the economy this year, I think, and job creation." And social issues? "I don't think they are as important this year, just because of the trying times we're having right now economically."
How far off the charts are social issues?
In a Winthrop University poll in September, more than 62 percent of Republican voters said the economy and jobs top their concerns. And the South Carolina Federation of Republican Women had a straw poll of its 110 activists at a convention in Greenville at the end of October. More than 40 said the economy and jobs were the issue for candidates to deal with. Social issues trailed at a distant fifth.
It's a clear signal, said LaDonna Ryggs, a federation board member who runs the Spartanburg County GOP and worked at Bob Jones until September. "You're going to vote your pocketbook," said Ryggs.
The priorities are shifting while Bob Jones University is off candidates' to-do lists. Only Anita Perry, wife of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has made a stop at the school so far this cycle.
The current generation of Joneses isn't keeping up the political beat that has had a national impact since Ronald Reagan vied with former Texas Gov. John Connelly for the GOP nomination in 1980.
Gary Weier, the university's executive vice president of administration, said BJU president Stephen Jones "does not have that same interest that his father (Bob Jones III) had."
The father and son weren't available for interviews with The Associated Press.
The Jones endorsement revived George W. Bush's 2000 campaign. After a whipping in New Hampshire, Bush regrouped by launching his South Carolina drive from the school.
With or without the Bob Jones influence and the rise of pocketbook issues, Ryggs and others say Christian conservatives remain so ingrained in the state's politics that they can't be separated - and must be courted by candidates.
For instance, one of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's first public events in the state was at Newman's crisis pregnancy center. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has regularly met with religious leaders as she's made the rounds. And Bachmann and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both spoke to a large gathering of church leaders in Columbia this summer.
But the courtship has been obvious for Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and Georgia businessman Herman Cain, a conservative Baptist.
Joe Mack, a longtime state Baptist leader, said candidates have to talk about both. "I think we're very concerned about the economic issues, but we're not relenting any on the social issues either," Mack said.
And social issues, while not the emphasis the election, cannot be overlooked, said Drew McKissick, who led South Carolina's constitutional ban on gay marriage and also advised Romney's 2008 campaign.
"I don't think we'll see any credible candidate running for president who looks like they have a shot at the nomination shortchanging social conservatives on their positions," McKissick said.