"Voters don't have an obvious candidate who is in the evangelical camp and who seems like they can win," says C. Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville. "At the same time, you've got some other issues, like the war in Iraq and the security issues, that really are bigger than the kinds of issues" – like abortion – "that played out in 2000."
Two other factors, analysts say, are sharp rifts at the statehouse between fiscal and social conservatives and the deaths of local icons like Sen. Strom Thurmond and Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr. with sway over large swaths of the electorate.
Unlike in 2000, "it's not Bush versus McCain and you just choose up sides," says Ferrell Guillory, of the Center for the Study of the American South, at the University of North Carolina.
McCain's last presidential campaign was derailed here in 2000, in a rout by Bush after religious conservatives portrayed McCain's support for campaign- finance reform and fetal-tissue research as a threat to the antiabortion movement.
McCain has gone to great lengths since then to mend ties with evangelicals. He met with late Rev. Jerry Falwell, whom he once criticized as one of the nation's "agents of intolerance." He backed South Carolina's antigay-marriage amendment and state legislation to show pregnant women an ultrasound of their fetus before an abortion. He set up a faith advisory panel with ties to Bob Jones University, a Christian institution in Greenville he had denounced in the 2000 campaign for its ban, since lifted, on interracial dating.
The efforts bore fruit, with early endorsements from Sen. Lindsey Graham, the attorney general, and the state House speaker, and state legislative leaders.
But McCain's advocacy for the Senate immigration bill and his recent campaign troubles have left many supporters with second thoughts, Republican activists say. "McCain's record on social issues in South Carolina has been completely overshadowed by immigration," says Lisa Van Riper, a leading antiabortion activist here.
A conundrum for some local conservative leaders is Mr. Giuliani's generally high poll numbers, despite his support for abortion rights. Though some say his ratings will drop once Republican voters pay closer attention to the race, others say his celebrity after 9/11 and his perceived electability may be sidelining social issues dear to evangelicals.