MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
To get an insider's perspective now on the race for the Republican presidential nomination in South Carolina, we turn to Chad Connelly. He's the state's GOP chairman. Connelly told me today he's not good at making predictions, but South Carolina voters are.
CHAD CONNELLY: I think this really comes down, when you look historically, Melissa, at South Carolina, we really do pick presidents. We've got a 30-year track record of picking the eventual nominee. And right now, there's no question, Governor Romney has a head of steam. He has all the momentum, but there's some other campaigns and candidates that have been working really hard here. And South Carolina voters are fickle. They're particular. They want to make that decision themselves.
And I really believe with all my heart, having watched this most of my adult life, whoever goes out, meets people, connects with the voters and creates a buzz out in the communities and the churches and at the kids' ball games, that's who's going to win this thing.
BLOCK: Will you expect to hear, say, a more explicitly religious values message from Mitt Romney there in South Carolina than voters heard in New Hampshire?
CONNELLY: You know, I think here it is kind of expected, that people want to know a little bit about your faith and are you true to your faith, that kind of thing. But, you know, I really do think the whole Mormonism issue, if that's where you're headed, is kind of overblown because as a Christian myself, I can tell you, people aren't that worried about the religion as much as the relationship. They're concerned about your relationship to Christ and how you apply that religion isn't as important to them.
But having a faith matters and having a character matters and people do expect that out of candidates.
BLOCK: I did hear some of that concern voiced on my last trip to South Carolina, where there were some conservative voters who said, look, I do not believe that Mormonism represents a true Christian faith and that will come back to hurt Mitt Romney here.
CONNELLY: Well, you know, four years ago, Bob Jones himself endorsed Mitt Romney. The public perception of Dr. Jones was, boy, he's a hard-line fundamentalist Baptist and there's no way that he'll ever accept a Mormon. And that was kind of the narrative, the message that went out. And when Dr. Jones endorsed him, all that kind of went away because he said himself, I'm not looking for a guy who's theologically perfect. I'm looking for a guy who can run the country. And so I really think that's an overblown story, to be honest with you.
BLOCK: I want to ask you, Mr. Connelly, about the role and the influence of the Tea Party in South Carolina. Your governor, Nikki Haley, endorsed Mitt Romney and in the process, she enraged a lot of her Tea Party supporters who helped her get elected in the first place. There's been a backlash against her. Do you think that will become a factor in this primary?
CONNELLY: We're in the middle of a primary and I think it's expected - I've got Tea Party buddies. I've got Republican - people would call them establishment. They've been around the party a long time. And I have Republican Party activist buddies. I have independent buddies. And they work for or they're helping put up signs for all six different camps. So again, this is one of those national messages that I think has really been distorted and overblown. I don't find it to be true at all.
BLOCK: Are you concerned about the sharpened attacks within the Republican field? We have Rick Perry now comparing a company like Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's private equity company, comparing them to vultures swooping in and feasting on a carcass. You know, executives making really handsome profits and having workers lose their jobs, including there in South Carolina. Do you worry about the effects of this bitter campaign on the Republican field?
CONNELLY: I really don't. I think that the primary process is a time-honored situation that it makes our candidates tougher. I think that works for both sides. I think people are used to it. It gets to be a down and dirty fight. And in the end, they come together to work against somebody like Obama.
BLOCK: A down and dirty fight, you mentioned. South Carolina does have a history of very ugly politics, vicious smears.
CONNELLY: Oh, yeah.
BLOCK: Expect more of the same?
CONNELLY: You know, I think that's the way it goes every four years. I don't care if you're wearing a Democratic uniform or a Republican uniform; we've certainly got that reputation. All I know is it didn't start with me. It ain't my fault kind of deal.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONNELLY: But it is that we surely have that reputation here of the sharp elbows and the backyard brawls. So, I would anticipate this will be more of the same.
But I got to tell you, I think it's been tame so far. I mean, you know, we've seen nasty whisper campaigns. We've seen nasty mailers. And I really haven't seen much of that this time around. And I know the TV ads are really cranking up. We'll see what the campaigns pop out and the Super PACs pop out. But in times past, I can name places where it seemed to be a lot worse.
BLOCK: Well, you've still got 10 days ago.
CONNELLY: That's right. We're excited to be the center of the political universe and I knew this would happen. You know, you can just kind of see it coming down to South Carolina.
BLOCK: I've been talking with Chad Connelly, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Mr. Connelly, thanks so much.
CONNELLY: Thank you, Melissa. Have a wonderful day and come to Myrtle Beach for our debate next Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.