Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, accompanied by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, throws an apple out to the audience as he campaigns at Harmon Tree Farm in Gilbert, S.C., Friday, Jan. 20, 2012.
COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina is the land of Revolutionary War heroes and was the first state to secede from the union. But its suspicion of federal government intrusion is hardly part of its storied past.
It's a sentiment that all the Republican presidential candidates are playing to as they court GOP voters with this argument: that President Barack Obama has eroded individual rights by stretching the federal government's reach and that only they can get Washington to back off. This pitch resonates strongly in a state where the Confederate Flag still flies in front of the state Capitol.
"We're tired of having the feds tell us what to do here. It's part of who we are," says Cole Naus, a 32-year-old Republican from Florence who heard Rick Santorum speak in the run-up to Saturday's primary. "We know we can do it better here. We know what's best for our kids, our families and our workers."
There's a historical suspicion, even hostility, here when it comes to the federal government. Experts say those feelings are aggravated further by a president who is unpopular in the state.
"All that presents a potent cocktail of anger and frustration," said Jon Lerner, a Republican strategist who has advised South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Rep. Tim Scott.
Indeed, feelings are raw among many in Republican-leaning South Carolina over three recent Obama administration policies or actions. And all the candidates, from Mitt Romney on down, have stoked the anger.
"Most of the things the federal government could do to get us back to work is get out of the way," Texas Rep. Ron Paul said Thursday during a debate in Charleston. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, added: "Let's not have the federal government extend its tentacles into every area of this country."
The candidates universally blame the Democratic administration for threatening 1,000 jobs at a Boeing Co. plant in North Charleston.
"The National Labor Relations Board, now stacked with union stooges selected by the president, says to a free enterprise like Boeing, 'You can't build a factory in South Carolina because South Carolina is a right-to-work state,'" Romney, the GOP front-runner, says in a television ad airing here.
The White House hopefuls rail against the Justice Department's decision to block the state's get-tough voter ID law.
"They pursue common-sense, anti-fraud measures that states have put in place all because they believe it's a partisan advantage," Santorum tells audiences here.
The candidates also seethe over a federal court's ruling against the state's new hardline immigration law.
As Gingrich recently argued: "It's pretty outrageous when the federal government fails to do its job and then attacks the states for trying to fill the gap created by the federal government."
These are sure-fire applause lines as they court GOP loyalists who vote in the primary. But the issues have little to do with the state's No. 1 concern — jobs.
And in some cases, the candidates stretch the facts of the three direct confrontations between South Carolina and the Obama administration.
All have weighed in loudly on what until recently was a long dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over the Boeing Co. plant. The board charged that the aircraft maker was building the facility in South Carolina in retaliation over past contract disputes because South Carolina's right-to-work law means employees are not required to join labor unions.
The GOP candidates commonly re-interpret that argument as punishment for choosing a weak union state. They still bring up the issue even though it was resolved last month when Boeing and the Machinists union reached a contract extension and the labor board dropped its legal action. With South Carolina's unemployment approaching 10 percent, the candidates have stoked fears that the NLRB's actions are prompting companies to look overseas instead of at right-to-work states when they want to open new plants or expand operations.
Another issue is a federal judge's decision last month blocking several provisions of the state's new immigration law from taking effect this month. It includes the requirement that police check the immigration status of people pulled over for speeding if officers also suspect they are in the country illegally.
Candidates often assail the U.S. Justice Department's move as they work to convince a conservative Republican electorate that they're tough on border security.
The Justice Department also blocked the state's new voter ID law from going into effect.
Haley also has fueled sentiment against the federal government. She has described the decision to block the voter ID law as part of "the continued war on South Carolina" and has vowed to fight the federal government in court over the issue.
Her state is among at least a half-dozen that passed similar laws last year.
A tea party favorite, Haley also has said that dealing with federal regulations is the chief burden and top frustration of her job as governor.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said his department is committed to fighting laws that create barriers to voting. He reinforced the point on Monday, the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., as he stood on the north steps of the Capitol in Columbia.
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"Let me be very, very clear — the arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion, not the exclusion, of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process," Holder said. "We must ensure that this continues."
But the arc in South Carolina plays out in a state whose Statehouse is packed with reminders of glorified federal fights: secession chiseled in marble; its heroes of civil war and segregation glaring from statues and paintings throughout.
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport contributed to this report.