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Gary Younge
Looking down the barrel in South Carolina

I admit it. Being surrounded by armed white southern men below the Mason Dixon line makes me nervous. I've been threatened with a gun before in the south, while asking for directions in Mississippi, and it's not an experience I'd care to repeat.

But my day at the Spartanburg gun club, chatting to men about God, guns and their favoured candidates was great fun (special thanks to the friendly and generous Harry who made it possible).

Four things became apparent after a short while there. First, to these men the Republican race is the only race in town. When I asked for their views on the primaries no one thought I was talking about the Democratic primaries.

Second, religion is deeply important to them and has a huge influence on how they are going to vote.

Third, that it gives you very little indication whom they are going to vote for. Almost every conversation tails back to immigration and the economy.

Fourth, even though I look quite menacing with a firearm I could not shoot my way out of a paper bag.

At East Pickens Baptist church the next day it was a different story. Pickens, which sits in the north-west region of upstate South Carolina, was the county in the state that voted most heavily for Bush in 2004.

All of the congregation I spoke to were going for Huckabee with the exception of one who was torn between Huckabee and John McCain.

Since white evangelicals comprise more than half the Republican vote, they have considerable clout, and if Picken's evangelicals are at all representative then Huckabee will see his campaign revived here.

Mitt Romney has pulled both his ads and staff out of South Carolina; Fred Thompson is making his last stand here but at this stage, having received just 1% in New Hampshire, is a rank outsider. That just leaves McCain (Rudy Giuliani does not deign to join the race until Florida next week).

An interesting piece in the New York Times suggests Huckabee may be suffering from a generational rift among evangelicals. His views on foreign policy, immigration and the economy chime with younger evangelicals even as their elders find them insufficiently conservative.

With the most recent polls showing McCain narrowly ahead of Huckabee and tomorrow's Michigan primary yet to come, only a fool would predict a winner here at this stage.

What is clear however is that while religion makes Huckabee viable, it by no means makes him unbeatable. And if he can't win here there is little chance for him on come Super Duper Tuesday.

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Stranger in a Strange Land – Encounters in the Disunited States
book review
'It often takes an outsider to look inside. This is especially true of the United States.'
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