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With Bachmann out, York Co. conservatives ponder GOP field

Mark Palmer of York surveyed the field of Republican presidential hopefuls - the truly conservative ones, he said - and he threw his support behind Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

"I had to think about it and prayed about it overnight, and I had to go with my heart, and my heart said Bachmann."

Now Palmer and other Bachmann supporters in York County are shifting allegiances - reluctantly, they say, and in varying directions - after Bachmann bowed out of the race a day after Tuesday's sixth-place finish in the Iowa presidential caucuses.

Palmer said he is "recovering from disappointment" and moving "to the next most conservative candidate."

"Michele Bachmann had incredible courage and fortitude to stand her ground, sometimes alone, in the Congress," Palmer said. "I want someone who has a strong faith, someone who has real strong conservative principles, who believes in free markets and limited government and still considers the Constitution relevant."

Palmer's new pick is former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who hasn't been competitive in fundraising and spending but who finished a close second to GOP big-spender Mitt Romney in Iowa.

"We don't want a hollow victory where we just get an 'R' for Republican in office. We want someone who's actually going to do Republican things and conservative things," Palmer said.

The most conservative candidate, however, may not be the one who wins the party's nomination.

In 2008, South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary - which has picked the eventual Republican presidential nominee since 1980 - chose John McCain, the mainstream choice at the time, said Scott Huffmon, Winthrop University professor of political science.

Early on, South Carolina conservatives viewed McCain, who later chose Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin as his running mate, similarly to how they view Romney now.

The state's most conservative voters are looking instead for the "A.B.R. candidate" - Anybody But Romney, Huffmon said.

Which means the real question is whether any of the not-Romney candidates can garner long-lasting and wide-reaching support, instead of splitting the party's "extreme votes" and making way for the mainstream candidate to win.

Whoever that candidate is, "they have got to pin it down. Right now, that's not support for them, it's A.B.R. support," Huffmon said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose struggling campaign suffered a fifth-place finish in Iowa, announced Wednesday that he would stay in the race.

That might change things for South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary, where the only not-Romney candidates were shaping up to be Gingrich and Santorum, or just one of the two, depending on what happens in New Hampshire next week, Huffmon said.

Palmer, who voted for Mike Huckabee in the 2008 primary, worries about the most conservative candidates being edged out.

"I think there's a tendency to essentially neuter ourselves and try to pick the most generally appealing candidate, and we end up with some limp-wristed milquetoast guy like John McCain," he said.

Finding a candidate

Rock Hill conservative Joe Kilpatrick, a former Bachmann supporter, is ready to move on.

"What happens next for me, I become a Perry supporter," Kilpatrick said. "I like Ron Paul and everything he stands for, but the man is almost 80 years old. Too old to serve as president, I think," Kilpatrick said.

He spoke most vehemently against Gingrich, who he said is one of the "insider elite that run this country."

Nothing about Romney is appealing to him, Kilpatrick said.

"I think Santorum is a good man, but for some reason he just doesn't appeal to me. Perry's not perfect, but you can't have perfect people. We're not perfect."

S.C. House Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, is searching for a candidate again after publicly endorsing Georgia businessman Herman Cain, then Bachmann after Cain dropped out.

He's looking for a candidate who best reflects his views, and he hasn't decided who he'll support. He plans to meet with Romney, Gingrich and Santorum soon. Santorum, whose Iowa finish was surprising, has some appeal for Norman.

Though Romney is a moderate and may be electable, he has flip-flopped on right to life and gun rights issues, Norman said. This year, Norman said, he's unwilling to settle.

"I think the country settled for John McCain, and I think they paid the price."

Gingrich's "issues" from the past continue to follow him and may thwart his success, Norman said.

"To me, it boils down to who can beat Obama," he said.

Gingrich's past may set him back, say several conservatives, including Swain Sheppard, member of Rock Hill-based GPS: Conservatives for Action.

Sheppard recently donated to Gingrich's campaign, the first time he's really chosen a candidate.

"I just threw my support to Newt Gingrich last week, unfortunately," he laughed. "A lot of my friends don't like him because he's got a lot of baggage."

That language - "baggage" - was used in hard-hitting campaign ads against Gingrich in Iowa. Now it's resonating with voters here, Huffmon said.

Sheppard knows the attacks could impact Gingrich's chances, but he decided to support him anyway because he "won every debate" and has the track record and the attitude to succeed.

"I want somebody that's angry ... and that's what Congress needs," he said.

At former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's Manchester, N.H, headquarters Wednesday, campaign manager Matt David said the nation's first primary Jan. 10 will help Huntsman exceed expectations there and in South Carolina and push him onward to Florida. David predicted Florida will be a turning point in Huntsman's campaign.

'Vote your heart'

Ron Case, who lives near Tega Cay, wishes everyone would "Vote your heart. I think we would be a lot better off if we did that."

But now that Bachmann is out, Case only knows who isn't getting his vote: Gingrich and Romney, who he says aren't true Tea Party candidates.

If he had to vote tomorrow, Case said, it'd be a toss-up between Santorum and Paul, but he's leaning ever-so-slightly toward Santorum, who he wants to learn more about.

Character and honesty are what he's looking for and what he saw so strongly in Bachmann. She was warm, sincere, and said what she was thinking, he said.

"I'm just sad that Michele didn't get in," he said. "She's really the only one I had my heart behind."

The Associated Press contributed.