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Concerns about Romney's Mormonism expressed more often in a whisper than a shout in SC primary
GREER, S.C. (AP) ' The second time around, the shock has worn off.
The prospect of a Mormon president appears to be less alien to South Carolina Republicans who are giving Mitt Romney a second look after his failed White House bid in 2008.
Still, worries about his faith persist in a state where one pastor jokes there are "more Baptists than people." Voters preparing for the Jan. 21 presidential primary are weighing whether Romney's religion should matter so much when they cannot pay their bills and a Democrat many distrust occupies the White House.
"Although Romney's faith is still a matter of some discussion, it is less of a political problem for him than it was in 2008," said Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, in South Carolina's conservative upstate. "Most Republicans have a generally positive view of Romney, even evangelical Christians."
Four years ago, the Romney campaign directly took on suspicion about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Conservative Christians, including Protestants and Roman Catholics, do not consider Mormons to be Christian, although Mormons strongly do.
The former Massachusetts governor courted evangelical pastors and formed a national faith-and-values steering committee. Romney gave a major 2007 speech in Texas, modeled on John F. Kennedy's pivotal 1960 address on Catholicism, that promised "no authorities of my church or of any other church for that matter" would influence his policies.
This time, Romney has no formal religion committee and rarely mentions his faith unless asked.
In an appearance Thursday in a motorcycle dealership in Greer, he said the election was about "the soul of America" and described the national debt as a moral issue. He called "America the Beautiful" a "national hymn." (The music was, in fact, originally composed by a church organist for a hymn.)
The only direct mention of religion at the event came from the South Carolina state treasurer, Curtis Loftis. In a speech introducing Romney, Loftis noted that he was a Baptist.
By contrast, at South Carolina barbecue joints and churches, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been giving what evangelicals call personal testimony of how he accepted Christ at age 14.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a social conservative and Roman Catholic who's sometimes mistaken for an evangelical Protestant, recently asked an audience in Greenville to pray for his campaign.
"It's a tough battle every day out there," Santorum said. "And we need that hedge of protection."
Appeals like these are almost expected in a state where Christianity is so much part of daily life.
As Romney arrived in Columbia for the first time since his New Hampshire primary victory, churches around the state were welcoming families for the weekly food, fellowship and Bible study that is a Wednesday night tradition in evangelical churches throughout the South.
In 2008, 60 percent of Republican voters in the South Carolina primary identified themselves as born-again Christians, according to exit polls.
Underscoring the focus on religion in this state, if not the skepticism about Romney's faith, the second question from the audience at a town hall-style event in Hilton Head on Friday was whether he believes "in the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ?" His answer: "Yes, I do."
Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative policy group based in Columbia, said the state "is sort of an evangelical-permeated culture."
Smith said South Carolina "is strongly influenced by very large churches. Even for those who just go to church for the ritual of it, the values people preach have become part of people's worldview."
The Romney campaign is making a play for these votes with a focus on values, according to Mark DeMoss, a senior adviser to Romney and veteran public relations executive who represents evangelical pastors and ministries.
The campaign released a new radio ad Friday that asserts, "Today Christian conservatives are supporting Mitt Romney because he shares their values: the sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage and the importance of the family."
A glossy brochure that began arriving in South Carolina mailboxes last weekend noting Romney has been a lifelong member of the same church. It didn't say which one. The detail also can read as a dig at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who left Lutheranism and converted to Southern Baptist, then Catholic.
The underlying message of Romney's generic faith language is "I'm just like you," said John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, Ohio,
"It's kind of like an inoculation to say, 'I'm good on these values. Now let's talk about the economy,'" Green said. "He wants to get past a potential criticism."
Romney has acknowledged that there are some votes he'll never win.
In the upstate city of Easley, the Rev. Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina General Baptist Convention, has posted an email exchange on his church website with a local reporter on his objections to the LDS church.
"Romney's Mormonism will be more a cause of concern than Gingrich's infidelity," Atkins wrote. Christians can forgive sin, the pastor said, "but will struggle to understand how anyone could be a Mormon and call themselves a Christian."
Hector Chavez, a Roman Catholic and Republican voter in Columbia, said he can't support Romney and neither can many people he knows. "As a Christian, I can't vote for somebody who can't lead us in a Christian way," Chavez said. He's leaning toward voting for Perry.
Yet, even Atkins ended his website post by predicting that most Christians will vote based on economic, not moral, concerns.
While he made the comment ruefully, he inadvertently highlighted what evangelical leaders have been struggling to explain ever since the 1980s emergence of the Christian right: Christian conservatives don't just vote on religion, not in South Carolina or anywhere else.
South Carolina has one of the most dramatic examples of how political pragmatism can co-exist with faith.
Bob Jones III, chancellor of the fundamentalist Christian school Bob Jones University in Greenville, stunned many when he endorsed Romney in the 2008 primary.
Fundamentalists generally steer clear of anyone with even the most minor difference over Scripture. But Jones said the country elects a president not a preacher. This past week, Jones said through a spokeswoman that he hasn't endorsed anyone so far in the 2012 primary.
Romney supporters often compare his plight to that of Kennedy, who overcame widespread prejudice to become the first Catholic president.
Charles Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, said the story of the Rev. Jerry Falwell may be more apt for this election cycle as a model for Christian conservatives. When Falwell was building the Moral Majority in the 1980s, he set aside deep theological differences with Catholics and worked closely with them against abortion.
"Evangelicals have been willing to make alliances with groups you never would have imagined," Wilson said.
Maybe Mormons will be next.
Associated Press reporters Brian Bakst and Kasie Hunt contributed to this story.
Rachel Zoll is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/rzollAP