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Economy trumps all in South Carolina

In the days ahead of Saturday's South Carolina primary NBC's Tom Brokaw learned about the issues most important to people in the Palmetto State for the Nightly News series Main Street, USA.


By Tom Brokaw
NBC News
Columbia, S.C.

There are only two days left until South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary and a new NBC News/Marist poll shows former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is gaining ground. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a 10-point lead over Gingrich, but Gingrich now has the support of 24 percent of likely Republican primary voters in the state – and the support of the latest candidate to drop-out, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

I spent two full days in South Carolina, from Greenville-Spartanburg to Columbia and many stops between, including the old mill towns of Laurens and Newberry. The Palmetto State has so many parts -- the coastal areas, the midlands, the western front -- and they're all distinct in their geography and culture. But after speaking with people throughout the region, I found nearly everyone agreed that this year the economy trumps all in South Carolina, a deeply religious state where social issues such as abortion and gay rights have played larger roles in the past.

NBC's Tom Brokaw spoke with Ron Paul supporters at a "debate watch party" at Bailey's Pub and Grille in Greenville South Carolina.   

Ernie Segars, the county administrator in Laurens, S.C., said although religious issues are “very important” to voters, “jobs and the economy are the major issues right now.”

“I think when the economy’s better and things are improved, and certainly the social issues are important and will have a role,” Segars said.

Watch Tom Brokaw tonight on “Nightly News” as he connects with voters in the political battleground of South Carolina, the second in a series of reports called “Main Street, USA.”  Click HERE to watch the first report, from Iowa.

Gov. Nikki Haley, a Tea Party darling who has struggled with her ratings her first year in office, echoed that sentiment.

“We’re looking for a president that understands it’s all about jobs,” said Haley, who has endorsed Romney.  “The hardest part about my job has been the Obama administration … The people of South Carolina saw that we passed by the will of the people legal immigration reform and the Department of Justice stopped it … The people have experienced the mandates and the stops of the federal government and they’re frustrated with it. And so they’re looking for someone that can go in day one and say, ‘Lay off the states, let them do their jobs and let’s get people back to work.’”

South Carolina's unemployment rate has hovered close to 10 percent, even with a new BMW plant and the arrival of some support industries.   

I also spoke with the state’s U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is being criticized by his own party and a variety of other party activists for his occasional departure from Republican orthodoxy.

“The question for the Republican party, would we put raising revenue on the table to solve our entitlement problem?” he asked. “Will our Democratic friends put on the table working longer and reducing benefits? And every time you put these ideas on the table, people come at you pretty hard.”


NBC's Tom Brokaw speaks with South Carolina's Sen. Lindsey Graham.

After talking with dozens of people, I encountered the most passionate opinions at a Ron Paul debate party at Bailey’s sports bar in Greenville: all working class and mostly young, many of whom had not been involved in politics before.

I asked Sandy Monroe what she found so appealing about Ron Paul.

“He challenged my ideas,” she said.  “He sent me back to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and to the Founding Fathers … He could win if the people understood what he stood for.  If people like me would actually go study what he says, it makes sense.  And it’s our freedom that he’s talking about.”

But for Robert Whitney, “it’s a trust issue.”

“Everything that Romney says, he’s flip-flopped too much,” Whitney said. “When there’s big government people saying that Ron Paul has integrity, that he’s a man that stands by his word, then I mean, I think that’s all the proof you need.”

Tune in to “Nightly News” tonight for more of Tom Brokaw’s reporting from South Carolina and join the conversation on the “Nightly News” Facebook page.