WASHINGTON — South Carolina voters in Saturday's Republican presidential primary were focused on the economy and looking for a candidate who could defeat President Barack Obama in this fall's election, preliminary results from an exit poll of voters showed.
The figures also suggested that the final days of the campaign in the state could have an important impact on the results.
Around half said they'd chosen whom to support in just the last few days, and around the same number said candidates' debates played a major role in making their decisions. There were two debates in the state in the campaign's closing days.
Most expressed positive opinions about the background of Mitt Romney, the former head of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that some GOP rivals — including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich — criticized for being callous about workers when they invested in companies.
Given a choice of four issues that mattered most in deciding how to vote, more than half chose the economy. A strong majority said they are very worried about the direction the nation's economy seems to be taking, and around a third said someone in their household has lost a job in the last three years.
South Carolina's unemployment rate of 9.9 percent is well above the national average.
The next most cited issue was the federal deficit.
The preliminary data also show that when it comes to the desired qualities of a candidate, nearly half want someone who can defeat Obama this November. Smaller, roughly equal numbers were seeking a contender with the right experience, with strong moral character and a true conservative.
The conservative and religious viewpoints of many of the state's GOP voters were also clear.
Solid majorities consider themselves conservative and around the same number support the tea party. Well more than half say they are born again or evangelical Christians, and a majority said it was important that their candidate shares their religious beliefs.
Around 1 in 4 voters said they were military veterans.
The survey was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left their polling places at 35 randomly selected sites in South Carolina. The survey involved interviews with 1,577 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Associated Press global polling director Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.