COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Republicans in this first-in-the-South primary state aren't too enthusiastic about the crop of GOP presidential candidates. They are fired up about defeating President Barack Obama and confident a Republican can.
"I'm telling everyone that worries about the field: Elmer Fudd can win this election," says Ashby Rhame, a Republican from Sumter County.
In this reliably conservative state, if not across the country, the GOP exudes optimism about making Obama a one-term president, no matter the Republican nominee.
The anti-Obama fervor, or fury depending on who's asked, has energized and helped unite a Republican Party that three years ago was disillusioned and fractured after the Democrat's victory. Obama has turned into a common enemy for the party, bridging divides between the Republican establishment and tea partyers demanding purity in their candidates.
Is the drive to beat Obama so great that Republicans will support a nominee who may have serious flaws or doesn't strictly adhere to conservative principles?
Yes, if recent American history and interviews with more than a dozen Republicans in South Carolina are any guide.
Such eagerness to turn out Obama is not unlike the frenzy among Democrats in 2004 to topple President George W. Bush. Many Democrats desperately wanted to retake the White House, but were lukewarm about their options. It's what led retired Gen. Wesley Clark to be drafted into the race.
In the end, an enthusiastic base wasn't enough. Bush defeated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in a race that both Republicans and Democrats say is not unlike the 2012 contest, only in reverse.
Then like now, "independents are divided," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. "They aren't signing on with Obama, but they're not signing on against him."
As with Democrats in 2004, polls this year show muted enthusiasm among Republicans hunting for a hopeful.
"They've got some good candidates," says Sally Atwater, widow of the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater. "But I'm not sure these are all of them."
Many in this state, which has a track record of choosing the GOP nominee, seem to be following the advice of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham as they decide which politician to back.
"We can beat Obama. Don't let anybody tell you we can't," Graham recently told activists. "I ask one thing of you: choose wisely. Make sure that we choose a nominee that can replace the most liberal administration in history and that that we can keep our track record together as South Carolinians."
To the candidates, he said: "We're excited to meet you, but you've got to prove to us that you can win."
Several Republicans at a state party convention recently say they were heeding Graham's warnings and will consider not just the candidates' records but their ability to go head to head with Obama.
"We all have our favorites, but I think you have to be very, very practical and very realistic," said John Boullossi, a retiree who lives on Hilton Head Island. "I still think that as much as we've heard, nobody has really emerged as the person yet."
Mary Lou Lineberger, a Bluffton tea party leader, is among the many Republicans in no rush to fall in line behind a Republican.
"It is such an important decision and we need to give it some time and look at these people and who they really are," she said.
Can Obama be beat?
"Absolutely, no doubt about it," Lineberger said.
Can anyone do it?
"Anyone can't," she said quietly, leaning forward as if sharing a secret. "He's a formidable opponent."
Others are more optimistic.
Said Diane Barnes, a Republican from Aiken: "We have a whole year and a half before the election ... He's going to do more wrong than good."
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