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GOP Focus Shifts To The Palmetto State


Whatever their disagreements, the presidential candidates agree on their next destination.

MITT ROMNEY: Tonight, we're asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello, South Carolina.


NEWT GINGRICH: This campaign is going to go on to South Carolina.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On to South Carolina. Thank you and god bless you.


INSKEEP: South Carolina's primary is set for a week from Saturday - January 21st. NPR's Debbie Elliott is in the state's capital, Columbia. She joins us once again.

Debbie, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK, you've been reporting this at a coffee shop there. What's been happening this morning?

ELLIOTT: Yeah, I'm here at the Lizard's Thicket, just a few blocks from the state capitol, talking to voters over grits and redeye gravy this morning.

INSKEEP: How's the redeye gravy?

ELLIOTT: It's delicious.

INSKEEP: What is redeye gravy? I don't mean to get completely sidetracked here, but...

ELLIOTT: It's like what - you take it from the ham drippings and you add a little coffee in and, oh, it's delicious.


INSKEEP: OK. What are voters saying, once they get their gravy and their coffee?

ELLIOTT: You know, I think you've got a couple of camps here. You've got people who are behind Mitt Romney, who think Mitt Romney is going to carry his strength from New Hampshire and Iowa here in South Carolina. And then you have the other camp, the more conservative voters here who just say he's too moderate and he's not for them.

INSKEEP: You're hearing specific votes this morning say that very thing, that they don't think they can embrace Mitt Romney?

ELLIOTT: Exactly. But the thing about that is, they are not all unified behind one of the other candidates. So that's the challenge here, I think, in South Carolina for candidates like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum. They've been here, they've been talking to people but yet the conservative votes here have not coalesced behind one of those candidates.

INSKEEP: Maybe this is a time to follow up on something that Robert Smith said a moment ago. He was describing how New Hampshire is Ron Paul's sweet spot. You could say that New Hampshire was Mitt Romney's sweet spot; certain kind of voters that they could appeal to - very different electorate in South Carolina.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. I actually had someone tell me, an operative in Columbia or a party activist here in Columbia, that, you know, New Hampshire and South Carolina are completely different places. We have different voters here. They might be able to wean the field but we pick the president. She was referring to the fact that South Carolina has picked the Republican nominee every race since Ronald Reagan in 1980. But the thing here is that there are 60 percent of the Republican voters here are evangelicals, and now there's a huge Tea Party contingent. So the question mark is: who is going to be able to get those folks excited? And so far, there's no answer to that question.

INSKEEP: Well, there are candidates who would like to think that they appeal to exactly that kind of voter. Rick Santorum, Rick Perry; we could go through several.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. And Perry has been here. He skipped New Hampshire, and he's been here. But he doesn't seem to be - even in the polls - to be getting any traction. Newt Gingrich is on the air with some very serious ads, and all of them attacking Mitt Romney. I think Rick Perry called him at one point this week a vulture capitalist. A super PAC that's behind Gingrich is out with an ad that's portraying Romney as a corporate raider. So the gloves are certainly off in South Carolina. Everybody is taking aim at Romney and trying to get important first in the South voters.

INSKEEP: Now, you said super PAC. Of course, we're talking about theoretically independent groups that are supporting specific candidates. And this particular super PAC that is backing Newt Gingrich is said to have had an infusion of several million dollars and reported to have put most of that money into TV ads in South Carolina. Is that a lot in a state like South Carolina?

ELLIOTT: It is a lot, but I think that's fairly typical here. I had a consultant that I ran into this morning, someone who used to work for the Bachmann campaign but is now unaligned, saying that he had just heard this morning that the Fox Television News outlet here is completely sold out from now until the primary. So voters here are not going to be seeing any car dealership ads. They're going to be seeing hard-hitting ads, trying to get their attention in this race.

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, are people excited about the choice they face?

ELLIOTT: You know, some are and some aren't. I did pick up on a little vein of frustration this morning; folks saying that their not that enthused. A couple people saying they really like Ron Paul, in fact, but are fearful that somehow if they vote for him, it's, you know, he's not able to win the nomination and they feel like their vote might be wasted.

INSKEEP: OK, Debbie. I'm going to let you go back and get another cup of coffee. Thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Um-huh. Thanks, Steve. Bye-bye.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. She is at a restaurant called the Lizard's Thicket in Columbia, South Carolina, which is the next state to hold a presidential primary.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.