The race to pick a Republican presidential nominee is wide open as GOP campaigns gear up for their party's first debate May 5 in Greenville, a new Winthrop University poll shows.
The poll of nearly 600 Republican and GOP-leaning independent registered voters reaffirmed the finding of earlier polls: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is the current top choice in South Carolina.
Nearly 18 percent of those surveyed said they would pick Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, if the S.C. GOP primary were held today. That is not surprising in a party in which more than 50 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as evangelical Christians.
However, almost the same number -- 17 percent -- said they were unsure whom they would vote for.
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Huckabee, who finished second in the 2008 S.C. Republican primary behind eventual nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain and was in the state last month plugging his new book, has said he will decide this summer whether he will run.
"It's no secret that Gov. Huckabee is seriously considering a run for president in 2012, and various poll results like this one, which consistently show Huckabee as the definitive frontrunner, are, quite frankly, becoming hard for the governor and his political team to ignore," said Hogan Gidley, executive director of Huckabee's political action committee. "The governor is encouraged by these numbers and by many national polls that show he is the Republican candidate who can defeat President Obama in 2012."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney placed close behind Huckabee among S.C. Republicans, favored by 16 percent.
Romney ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 and is considered by many to be the Republican frontrunner, narrowly. He has spent millions in state elections, including donations to new Republican S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. But he could be handicapped by his signature on his state's health care overhaul, which required all residents to buy insurance. That plan has been compared to President Barack Obama's federal health care plan, which is hugely unpopular with Republicans.
Asked whom they expected to be the GOP's nominee -- regardless of their preference -- 47 percent of the S.C. Republicans surveyed said they didn't know. Of those willing to speculate, 21 percent predicted Romney.
"That's people recognizing his name from 2008 and hearing about him on the news," said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and the pollster who oversaw the poll. "It has more to do with the fact they don't recognize the names of the others in the field."
The field of possible GOP candidates is large, leading to uncertainty among S.C. Republicans. Some candidates have declared they are running. Some have hinted. Others say they are exploring their options.
One of those, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said Monday he would not run. Barbour was favored by only 1.5 percent of the S.C. Republicans polled.
The other 13 potential candidates failed to break into the poll's double digits, including U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who headlined a Columbia Tea Party rally last week. However, developer and TV "Celebrity Apprentice" host Donald Trump came close, winning the support of 9.9 percent of those polled.
Trump, who is making headlines for questioning whether Obama was born in the United States, has been polling higher in other states, and Winthrop's Huffmon said he was surprised he did not fare better among S.C. Republicans, in view of his high name identification.
"People may like what he has to say, but they also liked hearing what (Rudy) Giuliani had to say," Huffmon said, referring to the former New York City mayor who fared poorly in the 2008 S.C. GOP primary. "They just didn't like hearing it with a New York accent. As exciting as Trump is, I think he's going to have to do a little more to win over South Carolina voters."
S.C. Republican voters seemed to have heard too much about two possible candidates -- Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich.
Nearly a third of the S.C. Republicans surveyed had a negative opinion of Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential pick; nearly a quarter had a negative opinion of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist, said he thinks GOP voters are looking for fresh faces, on the basis of recent Republican county conventions in the Upstate that he has attended.
"Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, maybe even Huckabee have been around too long for many of these voters," Woodard said. "I don't know if any of them have the magnetism."
No matter who gets the nomination, Palmetto State GOP voters said it is more important the nominee's beliefs match their beliefs than that the candidate be capable of beating Obama, a Democrat who is considered a shoo-in for his party's nomination. Fifty-six percent said matching beliefs are more important for the nominee; only about a third said being able to beat Obama was more important.
While most S.C. Republicans say they are not tea party members, nearly three-fourths said they generally agree with that movement's principles: limited government and lower taxes.
"That movement is still very strong among Republican voters," Woodard said. "People are not going to abandon that for someone that they think can win. They want someone who shares their principles."
So what issues are S.C. Republicans most concerned about?
A third said the economy is the most important problem facing the country; another third said it is the nation's budget deficit/debt.
A majority ranked the national economy as "very bad" and getting worse.
They felt better about the state economy, however, with 46 percent ranking it as "fairly bad" but 41 percent saying it was improving.
Creating jobs and improving the economy are top priorities for South Carolina.
What self-identified S.C. Republicans and independents who lean Republican had to say
Whom would you vote for to be the GOP nominee for president?
Mike Huckabee - 17.8 percent
Not sure - 16.9 percent
Mitt Romney - 16.1 percent
Donald Trump - 9.9 percent
Sarah Palin - 8.6 percent
Newt Gingrich - 8.1 percent
Chris Christie - 6.2 percent
Michele Bachmann - 3.8 percent
Ron Paul - 2.5 percent
Herman Cain - 1.7 percent
Tim Pawlenty -1.7 percent
Haley Barbour - 1.5 percent
Rick Santorum - 1.4 percent
Jon Huntsman - 0.8 percent
Mitch Daniels - 0.6 percent
Gary Johnson - 0.0 percent
Regardless, whom do you expect to be the GOP nominee?
Not sure - 47.4 percent
Romney - 21.4 percent
Huckabee - 8.3 percent
Regardless of whom you support, is your opinion of _____ somewhat or very unfavorable?
Palin - 32.3 percent
Gingrich - 23.1 percent
Romney - 16.5 percent
What's more important? Beating Obama, or a GOP nominee who matches my beliefs?
Match beliefs - 56 percent
Beat Obama - 32.4 percent
How likely do you think it is that Barack Obama will be re-elected?
Not very/not at all - 50.9 percent
Very/somewhat likely - 43.1 percent
Most important issue facing U.S.?
Economy/financial crisis - 33 percent
Budget deficit or debt - 32 percent
Most important issue facing S.C.?
Jobs or unemployment - 23.8 percent
Economy/financial crisis - 22.8 percent