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GOP Campaign: Hours to Decide, Few Willing to Commit

Kim Severson|The New York Times

Heidi Trull does not usually allow customers to talk politics or religion at Grits and Groceries, her restaurant here in the farmland that defines the northwest corner of the state.

People’s opinions are usually too strong. And a heated argument can ruin a good dish of Carolina shrimp and grits.

But Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the state’s Republican presidential primary, her ban on political talk did not matter one bit. No one had found a candidate they liked enough to argue for.

From country restaurants like this one to suburban shopping malls in Spartanburg and espresso bars in Greenville, voters facing four options in the Republican primary seemed to shrug and say, “I haven’t decided.”

Polls, which have Newt Gingrich gaining ground on Mitt Romney while Ron Paul and Rick Santorum battle for third place, do not always reflect what is happening on the ground, particularly in a region that has emerged as a coveted electoral battleground.

Thursday’s debate swung some undecided voters from one camp to another and back again. A relentless barrage of political ads only added to the confusion. Thus, in a state known for its fickle, independent political nature, people appear to be waiting until they step into a voting both to decide.

“I said I was going to vote for Newt, but now I don’t know,” said Kathy Matasavage, 53, who moved here nine years ago and waits tables at Grits and Groceries. “All of these ads and debates are just so negative. You think you have your mind made up, and then there is craziness and more craziness.”

Thursday’s debate, which pivoted partly around demands that Mr. Romney release his tax returns and accusations by one of Mr. Gingrich’s former wives that he had asked for an open marriage, had an effect.

Kim Raines, 35, who was shearing a schnauzer named Dickens at a pet grooming shop in Spartanburg, was all set to vote for Mr. Gingrich until she heard part of an interview with his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, that was shown Thursday after the debate.

“I’m a cheated-on woman, so Newt getting in that scandal was a big thing to me,” she said. So now Ms. Raines, who has two children, is leaning toward Mr. Romney because he seems more of a leader.

Conversely, the interview and Mr. Gingrich’s combative response to questions about his marital past pushed C. W. Harris, a life insurance salesman in Greenville, into the Gingrich camp. “The more they attack Newt, the more I want to support him,” he said.

The issue of Mr. Romney’s wealth, how he got it and whether he should release his tax returns seemed to have less resonance with some voters.

At a small debate viewing party in Greer on Thursday night filled with people supporting different candidates, no one said that seeing Mr. Romney’s tax returns would make a difference. Nor did they care that he made millions as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital, which his opponents claim ruined lives by closing companies.

“It doesn’t bother me that he is wealthy,” said Linda Tapp, 65, a retired medical office worker. “That tells me he knows how to handle finances.”

To be sure, some voters know exactly what they want. Patricia Seiber, a school secretary, will vote for Mr. Santorum. “I have 5 sons and 17 grandchildren, and we are all for him,” she said.

Democrats Voting

Sandra Sperry, who was buying toys for her grandchildren, is a Gingrich supporter all the way. “He is a smart politician, and I want someone who can beat Obama,” she said. “It is going to take one to beat one.”

In South Carolina, the primaries are open, meaning registered Democrats can vote in the Republican primary on Saturday and still vote for their own party in the presidential election. Some more conservative Democrats and independents will be doing just that.

Janie Dillard, 63, is one of them. She calls herself a yellow-dog Democrat, but will vote for Mr. Romney on Saturday. “He’s as close as you can get to Obama on the Republican side,” she said.

Final South Carolina Countdown

For some voters, it was coming down to an issue of character. But with not much more to go on than attack advertisements and news media reports, which some were skeptical of, voters found it a challenge to figure out which candidate had the best character.

“I’d like somebody who was moral, but you can’t tell that from watching TV,” said Carol Eubanks. For others, morality was low on the list. Everyone, some said, had something they probably wished they had done better in their lives. “I’m not electing a preacher or a Sunday school teacher,” Mrs. Tapp said.

In dozens of interviews here this week, voters most frequently mentioned smaller government, a better economy and a tougher stand on immigration — issues that are tied together in some minds.

South Carolina has one of the toughest anti-immigration laws in the country. The unemployment rate only recently dropped to 9.9 percent, fueled in part by a number of new manufacturing jobs in this and other parts of the state.

“We need to focus on our country more than anything else,” said Robert Maples, 34, who works for a satellite dish company and has a 4-year-old son. “We’ve got to close those borders and keep jobs here. We’ve got to fix us first.”

He has not decided who he is going to vote for, either. He ticks through the list, giving some candidates points for foreign policy, others points for leadership and still others for sincerity. To him and plenty of others here, each seems to hold some appeal, but not enough to commit to.

“If you could mix them together, then maybe you’d have someone,” said Kelly Burrell, 32, a single mother working at a cellphone cover kiosk in a Spartanburg mall. “Like, if you had a cross between Newt and Ron Paul, maybe with a little Santorum thrown in, we’d be great.”

Ms. Burrell said she was, at least on Friday, leaning toward Mr. Romney as a kind of default. "But,” she said, “I really don’t know.”