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S. Carolina key in Republicans' ambitions

Varied paths to primary

Gina Cox and her husband, Wesley, said Rudy Giuliani's social moderation matches their own. The couple from Irmo, S.C., attended the Okra Strut parade and festival. Gina Cox and her husband, Wesley, said Rudy Giuliani's social moderation matches their own. The couple from Irmo, S.C., attended the Okra Strut parade and festival. (Mark McLane for the boston globe)

IRMO, S.C. - Each of the top Republican presidential candidates has a different path to the nomination. South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary on Jan. 19 - in between the initial contests and a de facto national primary in early February - lies at the crossroads of all three.

Mitt Romney is hoping a strong showing in South Carolina will prove he can do well in less familiar political terrain than Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first contests will be held and where he is investing heavily with time and money.

Rudy Giuliani is looking at South Carolina as a springboard to win Florida on Jan. 29, hoping that will help him reel in other big, delegate-rich states including California and New York that are among 20 states voting on Feb. 5.

Fred Thompson, a native Southerner, popular actor, and former senator from Tennessee, is aiming to jump-start his campaign by sweeping the South, with South Carolina a virtual must-win.

On the eve of the three-month stretch run, polls show the state is up for grabs. While political specialists on the South say Thompson should fare well because of his regional roots, Giuliani and Romney face hurdles as Northeasterners with less-than-perfect conservative credentials.

Romney, as the former governor of Ted Kennedy's home state, has been criticized for changing his views on important social issues such as gay rights and abortion, and has been eyed with suspicion by many conservative Christians who view his Mormon faith as a cult. Giuliani, a thrice-married New Yorker, supports abortion rights and backed gun control as New York's mayor.

The clashing perspectives of the candidates were echoed in the crowd Saturday in Irmo, a town near the state capital of Columbia where people from far and wide gathered for the Okra Strut, a parade and festival celebrating the slimy green vegetable so beloved in the South. As squads of girls' dance teams kicked and twirled and vans emblazoned with the names of churches rolled by, Myra Gilbert, 48, a Wendy's franchisee from Chapin, said Giuliani was her favorite candidate so far for one simple reason: "proven leadership."

Yes, she disagrees with him on abortion, she acknowledged with a shrug. But, she added, "My number one issue is antiterrorism. If you don't do that, nothing else matters."

Her husband, Don, 58, was not so sure. Giuliani's family situation gave Romney a slight edge in his mind. "Giuliani has been through several wives," he said. "His leadership ability is proven a little bit more, but family issues . . . that's a negative for him."

Others like Gina Cox, a real estate agent, and her husband, Wesley, a restaurant manager, both in their 30s, said Giuliani's social moderation matches their own, even though they consider themselves devout Christians.

"I just think he is so real," Gina Cox said. "He's likable."

Her husband agreed. "He's a come-as-you-are kind of guy."

Don Looney, 62, an Irmo native who owns a business that manufactures commercial greenhouses and equipment, said he admired Giuliani - "a tough guy" - but would probably vote for Thompson if the election were today. "Fred, he's a good conservative guy."

Many voters interviewed at the Okra Strut cited Romney's religion as a serious problem in the South, though most said they did not have a problem with electing a Mormon as president. The Gilberts said they have no hangups about the religion - they are friendly with a Mormon family next door, they said - but they have heard many friends say they would not vote for Romney because they are uncomfortable with his religion. "This is the Bible Belt," Myra Gilbert said.

Romney, in sharp contrast to his front-runner status in Iowa and New Hampshire, is in third or fourth place in polls in South Carolina, where the Republican Party moved up its primary 10 days to stay ahead of Florida. Giuliani is vying with Thompson for first place in the polls.

Depending how they fare in Iowa and New Hampshire, the other Republican contenders might not even make it to South Carolina. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who campaigned yesterday in South Carolina, is ahead of Romney in some South Carolina polls and is moving up in New Hampshire polls, but he is still recovering from staff and financial stumbles earlier this year. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, has drawn some excitement from evangelicals and conservative activists, but remains far back in the polls and fund-raising and is getting more buzz as a possible vice presidential pick.

Romney has spent more time and money in the state than Giuliani; most notably, he has dropped nearly $1 million on TV ads in the last month. (None of the other GOP candidates has bought television time in South Carolina yet.) In some respects, it has paid off, helping him attract an experienced staff and volunteer corps, plus a high-profile endorsement from US Senator Jim DeMint.

But while Giuliani began the race as a household name because he was New York's mayor during and after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Romney is still the least well known of the major GOP candidates. "He has sort of had a hard time getting over that outsider image," said J. David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University.

Giuliani's campaign, which added staff in South Carolina this week, sees plenty of reasons for optimism beyond the poll numbers. He has worked hard to brand himself as the antiterror candidate, which should play well in a state with a sizable military vote. And the state's fastest growing areas, the suburbs near Charlotte, N.C., and the coastal retirement communities, are filled with newly arrived transplants from the Northeast and Midwest who are more moderate on social issues.

Still, specialists on Southern politics like Woodard say Giuliani is going to "have a hard time down here" once people start paying more attention and hear his views on social issues. "People don't know about a lot of Giuliani's positions," agreed John G. Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and editor of The Journal of Politics.

But Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, disagreed, asserting that Southerners are not single-issue voters. "Southerners . . . like his style of optimistic leadership," he said of Giuliani. "He certainly is not typical of Southern Republicans on abortion and gay marriage, but only a fraction of those Republicans would say that's a deal-breaker."

Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said he watched conservative activists nod approval at an event last February as Giuliani addressed questions on abortion - promising to appoint judges like Bush's Supreme Court appointees John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito - and gun control, which the candidate said should be left to the states to decide. "There's not going to be a single disqualifier," Dawson said in an interview at his Columbia home. "They're looking for a package."

The Romney campaign dismisses the idea that his faith could hurt him in the South, saying it was only a problem among voters who knew little about him. Terry Sullivan, the campaign's South Carolina director, pointed out that Romney had won all the straw poll contests this summer in the state's most important counties, including Greenville, home to Bob Jones University and some of the state's most conservative evangelical Christian voters.

"It's the biggest county in the state in population, and as far as the Republican primary turnout, number one in the state," he said. "Those are the activists who are now making phone calls for us and putting signs up and stuffing envelopes."

The campaign is working hard to draw more attention to Romney's family, which they view as a huge asset for him in the South. Ann Romney, along with a daughter-in-law and grandchild, spent an entire week here this summer on her first solo tour; she has visited the state more than a dozen times by herself, Sullivan said.

Voters like Cathy Herron, 56, a Republican activist from Rock Hill, near Charlotte, are responding to that high visibility. "As a woman, I like how he treats his wife," she said over a fried green tomato sandwich at a local cafe. "I think things start at home, with how people treat their families."

She said she also liked Romney's new TV ad, which criticizes Republicans in Washington for deserting the party's core values. When sent a link to view the ad on the Internet, she said, "I listened to it three times. I was more impressed each time I saw it."

But she said she was torn between Romney, Huckabee, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Across the lunch table, Karen Walto, 59, an undecided activist who is on the state party's executive committee, said she had not made up her mind either.

"My intellect tells me Mitt Romney; my heart is with Huckabee; my gut feeling is Giuliani's going to win."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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