Conservatives talk social issues in South Carolina, but money is still on their minds

With Jon Huntsman gone from the Republican presidential primary race, five candidates remain standing ahead of Monday night's Fox News/Wall Street Journal/South Carolina GOP debate, an opportunity to glimpse how Palmetto State Republicans are leaning ahead of Saturday's South Carolina primary.

Saturday is only the third vote of the nominating season, but one that could all but wrap the process, and while social issues have dominated Iowa and taken up much of the conversation in South Carolina, the economy is still the deciding factor for many voters.

"This is a very volatile field, and it's had its leaks and valleys and ebbs and flows," said Amy Kremer, head of the Tea Party Express and based out of Atlanta. "Right now (Rick) Santorum is surfing ... at the end of the day, the people of South Carolina are going to have to make the decision and what they can all agree on is the economy is the most important issue."

Watch the Fox News/Wall Street Journal/South Carolina Republican Party debate on Fox News Channel and beginning at 9 p.m. ET.

Mitt Romney previously placed first in the Iowa caucuses, then won the New Hampshire primary by a 16-point margin. With a South Carolina victory, Romney would pull an historic three-fer, speeding his march toward "inevitability." In the past three decades, no Republican has won the party's presidential nomination without carrying South Carolina.

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    According to an average of polls calculated by Real Clear Politics, Romney leads the pack with 29.7 percent, compared to a 22 percent average for Newt Gingrich, 15 percent for Ron Paul, 14.3 percent for Santorum and 5.7 percent for Rick Perry. Jon Huntsman averaged 5.3 percent before announcing Monday that he was dropping out of the race.

    A 3-0 record would be "a strong start," Karl Rove, George W. Bush's strategist in 2000 and 2004, told Fox News. But don't expect it to end there, he said.

    Paul, a fiscal hawk who won the endorsement of state Sen. Tom Davis on Sunday, will "linger on" because his supporters are working hard in states where delegates are distributed proportionately rather than winner-take-all.

    Jenny Beth Martin, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, which is holding a convention in Myrtle Beach ahead of Monday's debate, said Paul and Gingrich are the subject of a lot of chatter.

    "The Tea Party people in South Carolina seem not to be resoundingly behind Mitt Romney and they're supportive of some of the other candidates like Ron Paul and Newt," Martin said.

    Unlike evangelicals bolstering Santorum in South Carolina, fiscal issues are the primary concern for Tea Partiers, she said. As a result, Martin told, Santorum is not penetrating.

    "They may also care about social issues, but they're not talking about those issues," Martin said

    At the same time, the 600 activists at the convention aren't sold on Romney either.

    "They're not really complaining about him. He's not their first choice. ... It's the South and ... we're just kind of a little more polite, I think," she said.

    Meanwhile, many of the candidates have inundated the media with television ads, but only Romney is doing robo-calls -- touting support from pro-life leaders. That's a segment of the population that Perry, Gingrich and Santorum are trying to reach.

    "They're basically canceling each other out," Jennifer Donahue, public policy fellow at the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College, said of the Not Romney candidates.

    She added that Gingrich's "scorched earth strategy" is preventing the socially conservative primary voters in South Carolina on settling on an alternative to Romney.

    "Gingrich is the elephant in the room, he's the 800-pound gorilla and he's making it very difficult for Santorum to become the alternative to Romney."

    A Fox News national poll out Monday also shows Romney in a statistical tie against President Obama if the race were held today. At the same time, the poll shows Santorum garnering 29 percent of voters asked to select the "true conservative" in the field. That gives Santorum the foundation to prove himself electable, a pitch he tried to drive home Monday by hitting Romney hard for developing an individual mandate requiring health insurance while he was governor of Massachusetts.

    Still, Romney is also taking the right tone on that issue, said Martin. The Tea Partiers appreciate "the fact that he said he will repeal Obamacare and he is talking about core values like fiscal responsibility."

    With unemployment still high, millions of Americans losing their homes to mortgage foreclosures and the federal government on track for another $1.2 trillion deficit -- its fourth year in a row above $1 trillion -- ultimately the race could come down to money, not only who has it, but how they plan to spend it if they get into the Oval Office.

    "The one thing we all agree on is Washington spending is out of control. We need a balanced budget and we need to live within our means," Kremer said.

    But if Romney still has to convince reluctant fiscal conservatives, who have repeatedly and vigorously opposed him, he may have to start by selling his fiscal record to the decentralized Tea Party movement.

    "The damage done by a Romney nomination cannot be understated. If Romney wins the nomination or even the presidency, the Reagan revolution will be officially dead and gone," said Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, in his blog Monday.