Republican presidential candidates have swooped through South Carolina for months now, trying their best to woo voters who will go to the polls in the state’s first-in-the-South primary in January.
So far, however, that wooing hasn’t stuck.
More than two-thirds of the 600 likely S.C. GOP primary voters surveyed by Clemson University’s Palmetto Poll, released Wednesday, said they have not decided which GOP candidate they will support.
Asked which candidate they would support if the election were held today, 22 percent picked former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and 20 percent said embattled businessman Herman Cain.
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But, even then, 68 percent of those polled said they are likely to change their minds before the Jan. 21 primary.
“This indicates the election is still fluid,” Clemson political scientist Bruce Ransom said.
The GOP candidates obviously are hoping S.C. voter support flows their way because winning the state’s GOP primary historically has been important. Since 1980, every winner of the S.C. Republican primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination.
“What South Carolinians think and who they back is historically important,” Clemson political scientist Dave Woodard said.
The poll was conducted between Oct. 27 and Nov. 7, right about the time Cain’s campaign was besieged by allegations that he sexually harassed multiple women. That smoldering controversy exploded earlier this week, as two women came forward to publicly claim that Cain harassed them.
Cain has struggled to respond to the scandal. His campaign initially said the scandal was orchestrated by the GOP campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, an allegation Cain subsequently pulled back.
Cain on Tuesday said the allegations have been leveled against him because the Democratic “machine” does not want a businessman in the White House. Democrats responded they would like nothing more than to have President Obama face Cain, who has made light of his own geopolitical knowledge, telling PBS, for instance, that the Chinese are “trying to develop nuclear capability.” China has been a nuclear power since the 1960s.
Cain’s stumbles could present an opening for Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Gingrich was third in the Palmetto Poll at 10 percent, moving him ahead of Perry, who zoomed to the top of the polls when he announced his candidacy only to plummet after poor debate performances.
While the GOP race remains unsettled, one thing has been constant here and across the early voting states: Romney is at or near the lead.
The Palmetto Poll offered some bright spots for Romney, but it held ominous signs, too.
Romney was leading in the Palmetto Poll in November 2007 but came in fourth when the voting took place in January 2008.
This year, Romney has not been embraced by Tea Party conservatives, but 87 percent of those polled said they do not consider themselves to be a member of the Tea Party. And only 38 percent said they consider themselves a supporter of the Tea Party movement.
Those numbers could mean that the Tea Party’s lukewarm feelings about Romney might not prevent him from winning South Carolina or the GOP nomination.
Certainly, getting the backing of U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., would have helped Romney or any other candidate in the field.
DeMint, who supported Romney in 2008 but won’t endorse any of the GOP candidates this time, has a 70 percent approval rating among those polled. That’s 7 percentage points higher than fellow senator, Lindsey Graham, and 6 percentage points higher than Gov. Nikki Haley.
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