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South Carolina GOP voters think Mitt is it: ‘I’m here because I’d like to shake hands with the new president’

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

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Rick Perry at a campaign stop in Aiken, SC Wednesday (AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C.--Republicans in South Carolina who aren't sold on Mitt Romney as the party's 2012 presidential nominee were skeptically scoping out the other options on Wednesday as the fractured field tried to convince the state's voters that they have what it takes to beat the front-runner and--more important--President Barack Obama.

Rick Perry--who soared in the polls when he joined the race in August only to put forward a dismal performance in the voting in Iowa and New Hampshire--appealed to a small crowd of voters  by dumping on the first two states.

"Iowa is a fine state; New Hampshire is an interesting place," he said, to laughs from the older crowd in the Lizard's Thicket diner outside of Columbia. Perry failed to capture 1 percent of the vote--receiving only 1,766 votes--in Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary.

"South Carolina picks presidents," Perry said to applause. The state's Republican voters have chosen the eventual nominee in their primary in every election year going back to 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated John Connally, who, like Perry, was a Texas governor who didn't live up to the early expectations for his candidacy (although Perry's presidential bid isn't over yet).

Although many Republican primary voters in South Carolina are deeply religious and socially conservative, the state often picks the centrist candidate over the more openly religious one, as when John McCain beat out Mike Huckabee four years ago. Several voters told Yahoo News that they were willing to back a candidate who was not their first choice if they thought he had a better chance of winning the nomination and beating Obama. Many of these voters have watched with dismay as their chosen—and, in their opinion, more conservative—candidate lagged in the race, or disappointed them.

"When he announced I said, 'Oh boy I've got my man,'" Sam Gamble, who is retired from the financial services industry, said of Perry. But then Gamble watched the debate in September when Perry defended his decision to allow Texas high school graduates who are illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

"I almost wish I didn't hear it," Gamble says. Now, he doesn't know which candidate to back. "Gingrich would do a good job, but I just don't think he's got a chance."

Ron Paul—who finished in third place behind Romney and Rick Santorum in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire--attracted an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 people near the Columbia airport at noon on Wednesday, including Paul Kennedy, a retired I.T. worker.

"I'm A.B.O.—Anyone But Obama. But I'm also Anyone But Mitt," Kennedy said.

Kennedy was concerned about Paul's foreign policy, but he decided to vote for him Wednesday after listening to his speech. Kennedy said he thinks Paul could win the general election, but he's worried the national party won't support him. "They're going to go with the milquetoast again," he said.

Like Gamble, Kennedy was initially considering supporting Perry, but parted ways with him because he thought he was soft on illegal immigration.

Kennedy's wife, Debra, supports Rick Santorum, because she thinks Romney is "wishy washy."

As she started to tell me why she preferred Santorum over Paul—"He has a true conservative record and he has more common sense than the rest of them"—a young Paul supporter interrupted her. "Do you know his spending record?" He said that Santorum voted to lift the debt ceiling while in the Senate.

"Sometimes you got to give a little to get a little," she retorted.

"We gave so much we're almost in the ground," he said, leaving her unconvinced.

Meanwhile, Santorum played up his social conservative bona fides at a Wednesday afternoon stop at the Yesteryears diner in Ridgeway, a small town north of Columbia. It was Santorum's second stop at Yesteryears in three months.

Judy Miller, who owns a consignment shop around the corner that's called "Just Around the Corner," acted as hostess, opening the door for visitors while wearing her purple-feathered hat.

"I wavered a little when…oh what's his name? Herman Cain was running. But there were character issues there," she laughed. "You're not going to see that with Mr. Santorum."

Coy Richardson, a member of Fairfield County's Republican executive committee, told Yahoo News that he likes Santorum but will vote for whoever gets the nomination. "I like all the candidates," he said while standing near the back of Yesteryears.

Richardson turned up a few hours later at Romney's packed rally in Columbia, at which point he admitted, "I'm with Mitt."

"I think he's the best able to beat Obama," he said.

Jonathan Lizotte, a junior who is majoring in accounting at the University of South Carolina, also showed up at Romney's evening rally. Lizotte supports Romney even though he likes Ron Paul better, he said, because he thinks Romney is more electable.

"I'm here because I'd like to shake hands with the new president," he said.

Correction: This article has been changed to reflect Ron Paul's third-place finish in Iowa.

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