GOP hopefuls test S.C. waters in tonight's forum, straw poll

COLUMBIA -- Five long-shot Republican presidential hopefuls will be in Columbia tonight, touting their candidacies to a key GOP constituency.

The Palmetto Family Council's presidential stump meeting and straw poll will feature appearances by a handful of candidates and electronic messages by most of the front-runners for the Republican presidential nomination.

Council president Oran Smith said his organization invited all candidates -- Democrats and Republicans -- to eat barbecue and get their message out to South Carolina voters.

While none of the Democrats accepted the offer, all the Republicans save one will attend or speak via video or telephone.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top contender for the Republican nomination, is the only GOP hopeful to decline. Giuliani's campaign said he has a policy of not taking part in events that include a straw poll.

Smith said he was disappointed no Democrat accepted the invitation.

"We did everything we could to get them," he said. "We wanted it to be bipartisan, and I'm a little disappointed."

Of Giuliani's decision, Smith said it's difficult to accept.

"Our event isn't focused around the straw poll," he said. "That sounds a little bit like something a consultant will tell you to do rather than what you should do."

Appearing will be:

• U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who has strong ties to religious conservatives;

• Dr. Hugh Cort, an Alabama physician;

• Chicago businessman John Cox;

• Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a favorite of evangelicals who is running fifth in most S.C. polls; and

• U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California.

U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee will participate by electronic means or are sending surrogates. McCain, Romney and Thompson said they had scheduling conflicts.

Important constituency

The Palmetto Family Council represents an important constituency for Republican candidates. Voters who emphasize social issues make up a major portion of S.C. GOP primary voters.

The Rev. Hal Lane of West Side Baptist Church in Greenwood said evangelicals are looking for a candidate who shares their beliefs and can win.

Thompson, who just joined the campaign, might be the one they choose, said Lane, former president of the S.C. Baptist Convention.

"There is a lot of excitement now that Fred Thompson is in the race," Lane said. "Just from evangelicals I talk to, they like that he is speaking out very specifically about issues like Roe v. Wade and other issues that are important to us in the family-values area. Also, people think he has electability."

"We like Mike Huckabee," Lane said. "His positions are our positions, as well. But I think there is a concern about his electability. Many people feel Fred Thompson has more of a chance to win."

Tonight, however, only Huckabee will be attending in person.