GREENVILLE, S.C. - In the weeks leading up to the 2008 primary here, thousands of fake Christmas cards bearing the Romney family name landed in Republican mailboxes across the state. The cards, featuring a photograph of a snow-covered Boston Public Garden as well as a Mormon temple in Boston, were inscribed with a quote endorsing polygamy.
Welcome to South Carolina, Mitt Romney.
The vitriolic attacks on Romney’s Mormon faith ultimately helped doom his presidential campaign in a state where 60 percent of the Republican electorate identify themselves as evangelical Christians. While some Baptist churches continue to liken Mormonism to a cult, four years later and with two wins under his belt, Romney is viewed skeptically by Christian conservatives more because of his record than his religion.
But unlike Iowa, where evangelical Christians ultimately coalesced around Rick Santorum and gave Romney a run for his money, South Carolina’s religious right remains divided as the Jan. 21 primary nears. Christian conservatives distrust him for his shifts on social issues - especially abortion - and look askance at his religion, but, with support split among several contenders, their impact on the race is limited. Seeking to counter that trend in South Carolina and nationally, 150 Christian conservative and activist leaders meeting in Texas yesterday endorsed Santorum.
That endorsement may, however, have come too late to heal the divisions among South Carolina’s religious conservatives and stop Romney. “This is the perfect storm for Mitt Romney in a state like South Carolina,’’ said Linda Abrams, a political science and history professor at the famed Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville.
Still, Romney’s relatively recent conversion to social conservatism - he now opposes abortion rights and is no longer a defender of gay rights - tamps down his appeal to the religious right much more than his Mormon faith.
“Of all the negatives against him, his religion is the least salient,’’ said Oran Smith, head of the Palmetto Family Council, an organization focused on faith and family values. “People discredit him as a Massachusetts moderate. Just using Massachusetts as a dirty word in South Carolina can have some oomph to it.’’
But some evangelical leaders here in South Carolina’s hilly upcountry, home to the state’s most religious voters, consider Romney’s nomination almost inevitable given the divide of Christian support among Santorum, whose standing surged after a near-win in Iowa, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and to a lesser extent, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is staking the future of his campaign on the Palmetto State.
The latest American Research Group poll released Friday shows Romney in the lead with 29 percent support among likely South Carolina Republican voters, over Gingrich’s 25 percent. Among evangelicals surveyed, Gingrich leads with 40 percent, followed by Perry (15 percent), Romney (13 percent), and Santorum (12 percent).
“Mormonism hurts [Romney] with some, but it doesn’t hurt him as much as the fact that he’s not Mormon enough,’’ said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious liberty commission. “If he had always held the position on sanctity of human life and same-sex marriage as his church holds, there would be far fewer doubts about him.’’
Romney’s business background - largely viewed as a plus in a state with nearly 10 percent unemployment - has also helped to make his religion a footnote this time around, even among evangelical Christians.
“The economy has moved front and center in the minds of so many, and he’s already said he’s prolife and pro-sanctity of marriage even though there are all kinds of questions about his authenticity,’’ said the Rev. Paul Jimenez, pastor at Taylors First Baptist Church in Taylors. “But unemployment in South Carolina is a bigger issue than in Iowa and New Hampshire. So I’m not hearing the Mormon debate as a burning issue this time.’’
Romney is also campaigning differently in South Carolina this cycle. In 2008, he heavily courted the evangelical vote but was unable to make serious inroads, Abrams said. Romney has spent comparatively little time in the heavily religious northern region between Greenville-Spartanburg and Columbia and has instead focused on speaking about military issues and the economy in the low country along the coast.
But Romney has not ignored the state’s Bible region completely. He campaigned briefly at a motorcycle shop in Greer last week, vowing to restore the economy and produce jobs. And he has run ads here focused on the immorality of spending money one does not have, referring to the nation’s deficit.
“He’s using buzzwords evangelicals are very much attuned to,’’ Abrams said.
On Friday, Romney’s campaign launched a radio ad appealing to South Carolina conservatives: “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,’’ says the voiceover.
Danny Driscoll, a 63-year-old retired maintenance mechanic who recently returned to his Christian roots, said yesterday at a candidates forum organized by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for undecided voters that he’s crossed Romney off his list.
“I don’t have a problem with his Mormonism,’’ Driscoll said. “It’s more that I don’t really know what his core beliefs are. He could change by next week. If you’ve got principles and values, you’ve got to stand firm.’’
After the Charleston forum, during which Santorum urged South Carolinians to reflect their conservative values in their votes, Driscoll said he intends to support the former Pennsylvania senator because of his emphasis on strong families. “I see God and religion and Christianity being removed from our culture on a never-ending basis.’’
Tony Beam, host of an upstate local radio show Christian Worldview Today, will vote for Santorum in Saturday’s primary, but if Romney were to become the nominee, Beam would have no problem voting for a Mormon.
“You’re always going to hear whispers about his Mormonism, but I don’t hear it as overtly as I did in 2008,’’ Beam said. “As an evangelical Christian, I have some very strong disagreements with Mormonism, but the Constitution says there should be no religious test for the office of president.’’
LaDonna Ryggs, chairwoman of Spartanburg County Republicans and an evangelical Christian, said she voted for Romney in the 2008 primaries but would not say who she is supporting this year. She co-hosted a candidates forum Friday evening in Duncan, during which Santorum and Gingrich battled it out for the conservative vote. Romney, at a veterans rally clear across the state in Hilton Head, did not attend.
“I’ve told his campaign, ‘I wouldn’t dismiss us this time around,’ ’’ Ryggs said. “It’s a whole different ball game out here now because the economy is that bad. I’m telling them, ‘I don’t think that you don’t have a prayer here. I think you do, if you’d play.’ ’’