CHEROKEE COUNTY, SOUTH CAROLINA - South Carolina Republicans have a knack for choosing winners.

With the exception of 2012, they have successfully chosen the eventual Republican presidential nominee in every election since 1980. 

Given the state's heavy evangelical presence, a conservative Christian candidate like Texas Senator Ted Cruz might seem a popular choice in 2016.

The majority of South Carolina Republicans identify as "evangelical" and share his hard-line stance on abortion and other so-called "traditional family values" issues.

But while Cruz's fans are passionate, he is polling second to businessman Donald Trump.

A table holds Trump memorabilia at a campaign rall
A table holds Trump memorabilia at a campaign rally in Gaffney, South Carolina, Feb. 19, 2016. (R. Taylor/VOA)

In rural towns like Gaffney, self-described conservative Christians who support the billionaire can reconcile with supporting a "less Christian" candidate.

Bobby Ramsey, who attended Trump's campaign rally Thursday, said he isn't too concerned about Trump's religion. Instead, he said, he prays that he would be a good leader.

"He has accepted the Lord as his savior," Ramsey said.

"He's his own man," added another, who supports Trump precisely because he is not a politician.

Small-town values

Nine miles northeast of Gaffney, along South Carolina's rolling foothills, is Blacksburg — or the "Iron City." Population: 1,870. Councilman Darren Janesky describes the community as "mostly conservative."

"You can't walk an eighth of a mile in any direction without walking across a church," he said.

Janesky, who has lived in Blacksburg for 16 years, believes Trump is the most qualified of all the candidates.

There is not a lot of agreement at this table of f
There is not a lot of agreement at this table of five at Bailey’s Fish Camp in Blacksburg, where one diner backs either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, two lean toward Ben Carson and the fifth is waiting to decide, Feb. 19, 2016. (R. Taylor/VOA)

"People may have their issues with Trump and some of the way he conducts himself, but he's a businessman, and he's a professional, and he knows a lot about hard-core business," Janesky said.

The town's police chief, Jamie Ham, agreed, adding that he trusted Trump would surround himself with "successful people."

"He's successful in managing a multibillion-dollar business," Ham said. "We need somebody that's going to make the right financial decisions for the country, as well."

But not everyone in the town of Blacksburg is convinced.

For one table-of-five at Bailey's Fish Camp, a tasty filet was the only choice they had in common.

Greg, who is undecided between Cruz and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, thinks Trump is all talk.

In the
In the “mostly conservative” community of Blacksburg, South Carolina, "you can't walk an eighth of a mile in any direction without walking across a church," one councilman says, Feb. 19, 2016. (R. Taylor/VOA)

"How are you going to build a wall between us and Mexico, and get Mexico to pay for it?" Greg asked. "That's crazy."

Dirty tricks

Billy, across the table, says his vote will be a last-minute decision. Becky and Dana, on the other hand, say neurosurgeon Ben Carson — who is polling in single digits — is the best Christian, and the most trustworthy.

"He's not mudslinging," Dana said.

"No. He's not being ugly about it,” Becky added. “I just feel like he's being honest.”

Dana supported Cruz until his campaign spread a false rumor that Carson was suspending his campaign after the Iowa caucuses. She called the act "presumptuous."

The Texas senator, who surged to unexpected victory in Iowa on February 1, is urging South Carolinians to do the same Saturday.