By John Whitesides
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Deeply conservative South Carolina, home to an early and often decisive Republican presidential primary, could be Rick Perry country in 2012.
The Texas governor's surge in national opinion polls since entering the Republican presidential race last month is even more pronounced in South Carolina, where his staunch social and religious conservatism matches the state's profile.
Perry registered a 23-point lead in one South Carolina poll after launching his campaign in the state, and his dominance could reduce the influence of its first-in-the-South primary if his 2012 rivals are forced to look elsewhere to challenge him.
"The enthusiasm for Perry here is deep and wide and meaningful," said David Woodard, a Republican consultant who teaches political science at Clemson University. "He's got a great cultural connection with South Carolina voters -- he likes football, listens to country music, watches NASCAR."
Perry campaigned in South Carolina on Monday morning but skipped an afternoon forum hosted by influential conservative U.S. Senator Jim DeMint to return to Texas and supervise the fight against rampaging wildfires.
Perry's deep Christian faith and hot anti-Washington rhetoric is a popular combination in South Carolina, where conservative Republican primary voters have backed the eventual nominee every time since 1980.
The state is currently scheduled to hold the fourth contest in February in the Republican race for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, and the winner would get a big boost heading into later battles in Florida and elsewhere.
Perry's top rivals, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, face potential disadvantages in South Carolina and are focused so far on other early states.
Romney, who led 2012 polls before Perry zoomed past him, has focused on New Hampshire. He finished a distant fourth in South Carolina in 2008 with 15 percent of the vote and has had trouble winning over conservatives unhappy with his state healthcare plan that became a model for Obama's overhaul.
Bachmann, another hero to Tea Party fiscal conservatives and religious conservatives, is focused on Iowa's kickoff contest. She is running third in South Carolina polls behind Perry and Romney but cannot match his experience as the only Southern governor in the field and as a military veteran in a state with a significant military population.
"The fact Perry made his campaign announcement in South Carolina shows he's a strategist," said Washington-based Republican consultant Ron Bonjean. "You have candidates putting up firewalls in different states. His is South Carolina and he is going to have significant support there."
South Carolina Republican primary voters in 2008 were overwhelmingly conservative and religious, with exit polls showing nearly two-thirds attended church at least once a week and seven in 10 believed abortion should be illegal.
"We are in the middle of the Bible Belt and we are not ashamed of it," said Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina party chairman who is now Perry's state campaign manager.
The state also could be receptive to Perry's pitch about his job creation record in Texas. South Carolina's unemployment rate of 10.9 percent in July was above the national average and the third-highest for a state.
On his trips to South Carolina Perry has drawn big crowds, split between converts and the curious.
"I love his moxie. We need somebody to shake it up," said Katherine Thompson, a dermatologist from Charleston who attended Perry's campaign launch last month.
Joanne Jones of Charleston said she was interested but it would take time to vet the Republican field. "I'm a conservative, I believe in small government, limited government, personal and fiscal responsibility," she said.
South Carolina has a history of decisive Republican primary battles. The brutal 2000 fight between George W. Bush and John McCain was vital in Bush's march to the White House. In 2008, McCain beat back a challenge from rival Mike Huckabee that helped propel him to the nomination.
But if Perry continues his dominance it could dim the state's political relevance and force his rivals to look for other states to force a showdown.
"Perry is too strong here. This year, it's more likely the campaign will roll over to Florida and Romney and Perry can go head to head there," Woodard said.
(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Jackie Frank)