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Evangelicals still divided as South Carolina primary nears

January 15, 2012|By John Hoeffel
  • Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum looks on as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich takes part in a GOP forum in Duncan, S.C.
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum looks on as former House… (Matt Rourke / Associated…)

Reporting from Columbia, S.C. —

On a brisk, bright Sunday morning, with six days to go before South Carolinians vote in their GOP presidential primary, a sampling of church-goers in the Midlands suggests many evangelical Christians remain undecided, making the race highly unsettled.

“It’s a broad selection and it’s difficult. I’m still not committed,” said Wayne Gaul, a 61-year-old physicist, before ducking into the sanctuary at St. Andrews Evangelical Church.

Among those who had a preference, Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman and House speaker, was the leading choice. Several said he had the knowledge and experience to fix the country, as well as the rhetorical skills to challenge President Obama.

“He’s just got the answers,” said Ed Taylor, a 71-year-old mostly retired home remodeler who was greeting church-goers at Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Irmo, just north of Columbia. “He knows what’s going on. I think he’s the one who will stand up in Obama’s face.”

Frank Chandler, a 51-year-old FedEx tractor-trailer driver who was leaving Columbia Crossroads Church, said he thought the United States had the worst tax system in the world. “I want someone that’s going to get back to trying to fundamentally run the country,” he said, adding he thought that someone was Gingrich. “He just seems to be very economically intelligent.”

Danny Helms, 73, a retired grocery store owner, said he thought he would vote for Gingrich. “I know he’s capable of turning our country around,” he said, mentioning his record of helping balance the federal budget. “Newt Gingrich is probably the most experienced of the candidates.”

“I’m looking for the person that can get the country straight, that can get our country back,” he said. “I don’t think I’d want to be a teenager now with circumstances the way they are.”

Outside the vast sanctuary of Riverland Hills Baptist, Helms said he knew Gingrich had flaws, but was too polite to enumerate them. “He’s not a perfect man. Neither are any of us,” he said.

The Freemans stopped to talk outside First Baptist Church in downtown Columbia, where South Carolinians first met in 1860 to write the document that led to their secession from the union. “I guess the big thing for me is the idea of limiting government and its involvement with people’s business,” said Dr. Gil Freeman, a 57-year-old general practice physician.

He and his wife, Caroline, 55, said that they initially leaned toward Gingrich. “He seemed like one of the smartest people,” Caroline Freeman said.  But then they learned more.

There was the $1.6-million consulting contract his firm had with Freddie Mac, the discredited federally backed mortgage firm. “I wasn’t crazy about the fact that he accepted it,” she said. And she said she also worried he could be “a loose cannon” under pressure.

Several church-goers said they thought Rick Santorum’s emphasis on God and his family was the closest match to their values. But also they said they didn’t think the former Pennsylvania senator, who calls his campaign the Faith, Family and Freedom Tour, could defeat Obama.

“I think he’s an excellent man, but I don’t know that he has what it takes to get elected,” said Darlene Humphries, 50, as she greeted people at Riverland Hills Baptist.

None of the voters said they would cast a ballot in Saturday’s primary for Mitt Romney, whose conversion to the conservative cause is viewed with suspicion by some. But most said they would have no qualms voting for him in November, if he won the Republican nomination. And while some are troubled by Mormon beliefs, none saw them as a barrier to the White House.

Taylor said he had an admired uncle who was Mormon. “The Mormons are good people, but they’re wrong,” he said. But he said that would not stop him from supporting Romney against Obama. “You can’t have everything,” he said. “I could live with that, if we could get this country back on what the founding fathers set it up to be.”

Humphries said she was not troubled by Romney’s religion, explaining that character was the crucial factor for her. “He has a strong faith. It may not be what mine is,” she said. “I don’t think that prevents him from being a good president or a good man.”

She also noted that Romney, as the co-founder of a private equity firm and the former governor of Massachusetts, has business and government experience. She brushed off the claims made by Gingrich and the "super PAC" supporting him that, as a venture capitalist, Romney destroyed companies. “I’ve had my own business. I know what goes on. Things happen. Life’s not easy,” said Humphries, who designs and makes draperies from her home.

Caroline Freeman said she did not distrust Romney’s espoused conservatism. “A real flip-flopper is when you go back and forth, and back and forth, between liberal and conservative,” she said, saying that he has moved steadily toward becoming more conservative.

“As a Christian, I will be praying because I know our creator knows the perfect person,” she said, pausing momentarily before adding, “Well, there’s no perfect person.”

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