Matt Rourke, Associated Press
PROSPERITY, S.C. — Allen Koon had always picked his presidential candidates largely based on whether they shared his moral values and stances on issues such as abortion.
Then the recession pushed South Carolina's unemployment rate to record levels and Koon's construction business found itself short of work. Other jobs also were hard to come by in this town, named for boom times, and elsewhere. So, this year, the economy has pushed cultural issues to the backseat for Koon — and likely others here.
"You've got to eat first. You've got to keep your family going, you've got to have a future for your children," said Koon, a Republican searching for a presidential candidate who has a plan for getting the state and national economy back on track. He's leaning toward Mitt Romney ahead of South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary.
For the first time this year, the presidential race is playing out in a state with a dismal economy. That's reshuffled the focus of the first-in-the South GOP contest that historically has been shaped by cultural issues because of the huge chunk of evangelical and conservative voters who make up the party's foundation in South Carolina.
The state's 9.9 percent unemployment rate exceeds the national average of 8.5 percent and dwarfs the jobless rate in Iowa (5.7 percent) and New Hampshire (5.2 percent), both of which held their votes this month.
In the past few years, manufacturing and construction job losses have hammered South Carolina. The state also has seen a sharp downturn in its $14 billion tourism industry and rising gas prices.
More than 18 percent of South Carolina's residents are living in poverty, compared with the national rate of just more than 15 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Republican candidates are battling to emerge as the nominee against President Barack Obama in a race certain to center on the country's struggling economy.
A week before the South Carolina primary, Romney is the clear GOP front-runner after back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist, Romney has promoted himself as the strongest Republican challenger to Obama, given him background in private business. Romney is hoping that a campaign focused squarely on the economy will appeal to voters South Carolina, where up to 60 percent of voters consider themselves evangelical and social conservatives.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are working to undercut the central rationale of Romney's campaign by casting him as a heartless corporate raider whose venture capital firm put people out of work. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul have shied away from this line of attack. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is hardly a factor in the state.
All are emphasizing economic issues over social issues, though most are mindful not to ignore issues such as opposition to abortion and gay rights in hopes of winning backing from social conservatives.
Gingrich pitches plans to create jobs, boost home ownership and save Social Security. But he is focusing one of his first television ads on Romney's record on abortion. Santorum, who nearly won in Iowa, is trying to link moral issues with economic success. He cites studies that show children who are raised by married parents are less likely to live in poverty than kids in single-parent homes.
There are some glimmers that South Carolina's economy, like the country's, is starting to revive.
The state unemployment rate has retreated from its peak of 11.8 percent in 2009.
Under Gov. Nikki Haley, a Romney backer, South Carolina added more than 10,800 manufacturing jobs last year, many of them at a $750 million Boeing aircraft assembly plant in North Charleston that was the biggest single industrial investment in state history.
In the opposite corner of the state, German automaker BMW announced Wednesday that it would add 300 jobs — and a $900 million investment — to its North American headquarters. Online retailer Amazon plans to hire 2,000 full-time employees by the end of 2013 at a Lexington County warehouse.
Still, in this tiny town about an hour from the capital of Columbia, some say a full recovery still seems a long way off, especially for small-business owners.
John Hardin owns the Friendly Frawg CafÉ, a breakfast and lunch spot on Main Street, where the crowds have dwindled as nearby manufacturing plants cut jobs.
As he fried eggs on a griddle, Hardin said bringing business back to South Carolina is going to require a president with business experience. Hardin plans to vote for Romney.
"He's the only businessman out there. And that's what we need right now," he said.
That's not to say that with the economy as the focus, social conservatives plan to sit on the sidelines.
GOP voter Chuck Stogner went to see Santorum speak in Charleston on Thursday. He said he was looking for a candidate who shared his values and thinks he found a match in Santorum.
"He talks like the folks I have in my home," Stogner said. "You can tell he has the right beliefs."
Smith reported from Charleston. Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Charleston, Meg Kinnard in Columbia and AP deputy director of polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.
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