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God-O-Meter

thompson4.jpgFor a read on how the Republican candidates are faring among South Carolina evangelicals and in the state’s conservative Christian leadership ranks, there are few better placed than Oran Smith, who heads the Columbia-based Palmetto Family Council, a group associated with James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. The results so far out of Iowa and New Hampshire, Smith says, “boosts Huckabee and McCain’s chances here. The dirty little secret is that South Carolina, even though we’re Southern and conservative, likes to get on the right bandwagon. We like to go with a winner.”
That’s bad news for Fred Thompson, who placed third in Iowa and sixth in New Hampshire and is staking his campaign on a strong showing in South Carolina’s primary next Saturday. “Thompson got an initial boost from his announcement and he’s done well in some of the debates, but I don’t see him having any more of an advantage than the other candidates,” says Smith, who doesn’t make endorsements and won’t disclose who he’s supporting. “Huckabee has some momentum and Romney has some momentum and I don’t know I sense that same level of momentum with Thompson.”
Smith, who worked for McCain’s South Carolina consultant in 2000, says the Arizona senator has mended relations with many Palmetto State pastors since his first presidential race. In the last year and a half, McCain has addressed rallies in the state to promote abstinence and a state constitutional amendment to ban gay unions. “We put together an event with fundamentalist Baptist pastors in upstate and he told them he’d been chairman of the marriage campaign in Arizona and that he’d like to get to know them a little better because there was some bad blood when he ran for president,” Smith recalls. “And there was a coming together… word went out that McCain is not too bad a guy after all.”
Organizationally speaking, the Romney and Huckabee campaigns are in a different league in South Carolina’s evangelical community than other campaigns. “Romney knows where the votes are and has been flooding the state with values-themed mail.” Smith says. “Huckabee shows up at events that have already been organized, like pastors’ retreats. All he has to do is spend a little gas money and he’s got an opportunity to promote himself. The pastors enjoy hearing from him because he’s one of them. The question is does that support come down to the next level?”
Smith is guessing that it might, given Huckabee’s showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Huckabee is not seen as an evangelical candidate here, but as a candidate who won Iowa,” he says. “We like to go with winners.”


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