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Connecting With S.C. Voters, Candidates Try BBQ


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is just a week away. Polls show former Massachusetts Mitt Romney narrowly in the lead, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is close behind. And they're followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Last night, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum both hit an upstate BBQ, trying to emerge as the candidate the state's conservative Republicans can best rally behind. NPR's Debbie Elliott was there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Upstate South Carolina, the area around Greenville and Spartanburg is known for its conservative politics, a region rich in evangelical voters. It's also got its own style of BBQ sauce.

PAUL CUZ AYERS: Tangy sweet.

ELLIOTT: And most definitely red. Only a moderate or a yellow-dog Democrat might ask for a mustard-based sauce.

AYERS: Oh, that's that Southern stuff. From Newbury County down is all that old yellow stuff.


ELLIOTT: That's Paul "Cuz" Ayers. He's catering the dinner at this Bronze Elephant fundraiser for the local GOP. It's a standing room only crowd in the cafeteria at Burns High School, and first up in Newt Gingrich, hitting several issues that resonate with these voters. His support for a law declaring that personhood begins at conception, and for South Carolina's strict new voter I.D. law that's being challenged by the Obama administration.

NEWT GINGRICH: And I think we have to understand their fear. If the only people who vote in American elections are law abiding hard-working citizens who are deeply committed to America, the left wing of the Democratic Party will cease to exist.


ELLIOTT: Gingrich warns the power of conservatives is at stake in the upcoming primary.

GINGRICH: If we end up splitting the conservative vote, we're gonna stumble into nominating somebody that 95 percent of the people in this room are gonna be very uncomfortable with.


ELLIOTT: Gingrich and Santorum both try to connect with voters here, emphasizing traditional values. Santorum says his views are most in line with South Carolina.

RICK SANTORUM: It's a state that believes in less government, low taxation. It believes in state's rights. It believes in limiting the federal government, and deeply believes in family and faith as the foundational principles of our country.


ELLIOTT: Santorum seems to acknowledge that his candidacy might be considered a long shot by some, but urges voters here not to listen.

SANTORUM: As Republicans, you're constantly told, well, you can't really have what you really want because, well, if you put a real strong conservative up there across the board on national security and on moral cultural issues and on economic and spending issues, then they'll have a hard time winning, and we need to win. And who's saying that to you? People who don't share your values.

ELLIOTT: The message works with Christine Gladin a medical biller from Greenville.

CHRISTINE GLADIN: We have to vote in our convictions, and I'm going to say it, we have to leave that in the Lord's hands. God's able to put the person in that we need now if we do what's right.

ELLIOTT: Outside after the barbecue, Pat Wavle and her son-in-law, David Gibble, a Greenville blueberry farmer, say they're torn.

PAT WAVLE: I like Newt's experience. I think he's a person that seems to do what he says he's going to do and gets it done. He seems to have the know-how to get it done, and the courage to do it. And I like Santorum's views on a lot of things too; family values and...

DAVID GIBBLE: We have a tough choice between these two. We have experience and we have authenticity, you know. So what do I do?

ELLIOTT: That's the problem says retiree Dean Anderson. There are too many choices for conservatives.

DEAN ANDERSON: We need to get someone to drop out. You're splitting the conservative vote at least four ways. You can't do that. All you're doing is abdicating the throne to Romney.

ELLIOTT: Those choices may be narrowed after next week's vote here. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Spartanburg, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.