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Bible Belt state may be crucial in election

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Like many people in South Carolina, prison pastor Stan Kennedy is following the 2008 U.S. presidential race closely but has not settled on a candidate ahead of the state’s crucial early primary contests.

But Kennedy, a Republican, is leaning toward former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

“Their convictions and world views align with mine,” the Baptist minister, 48, said at Lizard’s Thicket restaurant in Columbia, a popular stop for candidates campaigning in the state.

Describing himself as conservative on social issues such as abortion, Kennedy is among the so-called values voters who will be influential in the state’s Republican primary on January 19.

The state holds its Democratic primary on January 26, on the heels of the Iowa and New Hampshire votes and ahead of some of the very large states like Florida, New York and California.

Its status as the first southern state to vote has made it a destination for the presidential candidates, who are squeezing in stops there when they are not shuttling between Iowa and New Hampshire.

“How you do in South Carolina is really a bellwether for how you might do all across the South,” said David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University.

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The state was pivotal both for President George W. Bush and his father, President George H.W. Bush. The current president trounced Sen. John McCain there in 2000, sealing Bush’s fate as the Republican nominee.

Bush’s father had a decisive win there in 1988, helping to earn the state its reputation as a kingmaker.

Part of the Bible Belt, South Carolina has a high number of evangelical Christian conservatives as well as many military veterans.

TESTING GROUND

A majority of its voters are Republican but Democrats consider it an important testing ground that can prove a candidate’s ability to compete in the South. Blacks, who make up half of the Democratic primary voters, can be pivotal.

On Sunday, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, running to become the country’s first black president, held his biggest event of the campaign, teaming up with talk show host Oprah Winfrey for a rally that drew 29,000 people at a football stadium in Columbia.

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Also campaigning in the state last weekend was Huckabee, who has been surging in national polls and has overtaken former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in recent Iowa surveys.

Kennedy, the prison pastor, said he has all but ruled out former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani because of his stance on social issues like abortion and the fact that he is twice-divorced.

But the perception that Giuliani is tough on national security issues drew praise from Randy Pardee, 56, owner of a heating and air-conditioning company in Columbia. Pardee said he was not very concerned about the mayor’s personal life.

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“All of the candidates have got some skeletons in their closets,” he said.

Sitting a few tables over in the restaurant with plates of grits and fried fish in front of them, school administrator Chuck Brown, 54, and his friends debated whether to support Obama or U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

Brown favored Clinton, saying her past role as first lady had put her “in the loop” and given her valuable experience.

But Cartrell Blume, 38, said he would vote for Obama, saying the Illinois senator would bring a fresh perspective.

“We definitely need a change,” Blume said.

Clinton, who has a strong lead in national polls, has seen her edge over Obama narrow and the race in South Carolina appears close.

A victory by Obama or former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in South Carolina and another early-voting state “is about the only thing that the could brake Clinton’s freight train,” said Christopher Gelpi, a political scientist at Duke University.

Reporting by Caren Bohan, editing by Doina Chiacu and Frances Kerry

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