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Perry, Romney running neck-and-neck in SC

By NBC's Ali Weinberg 

COLUMBIA, SC -- Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are running neck-and-neck among Republicans who are planning to vote in next year's South Carolina primary, according to a new Winthrop University poll released today.

Perry gets 31% and Romney 27% -- within the poll’s margin of error.

Poll director Scott Huffmon said the results suggest that Perry has been making strong inroads (especially with Tea Party supporters) since getting into the race in mid-August, and that Romney’s support in the state extends beyond his initial name-recognition strength.  

“Rick Perry has a lot of attention down here. I think Mitt Romney has a little more support than people are giving him credit for,” said Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop. “Both should be looking at [these numbers] as a way of trying to tweak their strategy and grow their base.” 

Romney has been far less present in South Carolina than Perry, whose wife Anita will be here tomorrow presiding over the Perry headquarters’ ribbon-cutting ceremony.

While Huffmon advised against overstating the “bandwagon effect,” he noted that South Carolinians do tend to coalesce around the nationally anointed candidate, given that it has voted for every Republican nominee in the primary since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

“In general, things that are liked by conservatives in New Mexico or in Wyoming are the same kinds of things that are liked by conservatives in South Carolina,” he said.

The Winthrop poll showed no other GOP candidates with double-digit support, with “Not Sure” being the next-highest choice at 11% in the trial heat. Businessman Herman Cain received 8% (a six-point jump since the last Winthrop poll in April) and Sarah Palin got 6%.

Neither the Perry nor the Romney campaign would comment on the poll’s results.

Among the rest: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got 5%; Rep. Ron Paul 4%; Rep. Michele Bachmann 3% (about where she was in April); and both former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Gov. Jon Huntsman at 2%.

Given the deflation of some candidates who might siphon off Perry support -- especially Bachmann -- Huffmon suggested the Romney camp would be wise to recalculate its “wait and see” strategy in the Palmetto State.

“I think Romney was sitting back, hoping that Tea Party supporters would tear each other apart in the Perry vs. Bachmann vs. Palin vs. Cain camps. But this may be a sign that he may need to wade in and take some of the air out of Perry’s balloon.”

The poll also found that more primary voters would make their selection based on ideology rather than electability. When asked whether it was more important to pick a nominee who can beat President Obama in 2012 or one who shares the voter’s beliefs, 60% said “match beliefs” while 33% said “beat Obama.”

Huffmon said those percentages should not be surprising, given that most Republican primary voters assume that Obama will be defeated regardless of the nominee.

The poll also tested GOP support for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who holds a coveted primary endorsement. Her approval rating among Republicans is 69%, with 18% disapproving.

Regarding South Carolina Republicans’ views on President Obama, a majority -- 74% -- said the term “socialist” described him well.

Huffmon said that demonstrated more that the language of “conservative elites” like pundits and radio hosts were trickling down to everyday Republicans, rather than voters’ beliefs that Obama fits the textbook definition of a socialist. 

Moreover, 30% of Republicans in the poll also incorrectly said they believed Obama belonged to the Muslim faith. And 36% said they thought Obama was probably or definitely born in another country. Yet that percentage decreased since the last Winthrop poll in April, taken before President Obama released his “long-form” birth certificate.

The Winthrop University poll was conducted from September 11-18 and surveyed 1,552 registered voters from South Carolina. For the majority of the questions, which were asked only of Republicans and independents who lean Republican, the results came from 596 such voters and the margin of error was +/- 4.01%. For those questions asked only of those who “definitely” plan to vote in the 2012 primary, the margin of error was +/- 4.57%.