GREENVILLE, S.C. -- What if there was a debate but nobody watched it because they were in church?
That seemed to be the case for some in this heavily evangelical, voter-rich region, who skipped the Sunday morning NBC/Facebook debate –- the last chance to see candidates on stage together before the New Hampshire vote –- because they were attending services.
Shopping at a Greenville mall Sunday afternoon, Lisa Eickholt, a 51-year-old adult education professional from Pickens County (which had 26.39% turnout in the 2008 primary, the second-highest in the state), said she and her husband Jeff were getting ready for the 10:30 am service at Five Point Church in Easley when the debate was on.
And in a state where football, too, is a religion, the Eickholts missed the ABC debate the night before.
“Football was on!” Eickholt said simply when asked if she watched the Saturday debate.
The Eickholts said they were both leaning towards Mitt Romney, though they still had not made up their minds completely. “He’s not the most conservative, but probably the one who the independents would probably vote for too so he would be more likely to get the nomination,” Lisa Eickholt said.
Don Phillips, a 57-year-old support program manager from Greer, was attending the 9:40 a.m. service at First Presbyterian Greenville with his wife during the debate. He said, however, that he’s largely tuned out the candidates’ sparring matches.
“Quite frankly, I don’t care to watch Republicans tear themselves apart. They’re just absolutely making ammunition for the opposite party.”
His wife Sharon agreed. “If all they can show me is ‘I can pick on the boy next to me more than you can pick on the boy next to me,’ then they’re not electable.”
Both Don and Sharon Phillips also said they had landed on Mitt Romney as their likeliest pick, although Don said he felt “appalled” with the Republican field overall.
“I feel like out of a nation of 300 million, and let’s say 50% of them are Republican, this is the best we can come up with? It’s amazing.”
Neither of the Phillips said that Romney’s Mormonism was an issue for them, despite the fact that he fared poorly among evangelical voters (many of them concentrated in the Upstate) in 2008.
“I would guarantee you 90% of the folks in South Carolina know zip about what Mormonism is. I believe they need to be more informed before they start tearing one another down. Jesus would not do that,” Don Phillips said. “Don’t do it and profess it and sit your butt in a pew in the church and say you’re a Baptist or a Catholic or whatever, and tear him down for his religion.”
Hoyt Dorn, a 52-year old employee at the American Cancer Society, was at the Reedy Grove Pentecostal church in Waterloo during the debate, but he too said he had largely given up on watching them.
“I think we’ve started the process way too early. I think there’s a lot of wasted time, energy and funds that could be used otherwise,” Dorn said.
A one-time Rick Perry fan who was now leaning towards Rick Santorum, Dorn also said that Romney’s Mormon faith was not an issue for him. “I take a person on face value. I don’t look at their background unless I felt it would be totally detrimental to what we’re trying to accomplish as a country,” he said.
But one disqualifier for him, he added, was a candidate’s focus on attacking his opponents, and he proposed a unique way to deal with negativity during debates.
“The first one that starts the so-called mudslinging, they’re dropped,” he suggested.