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Reporting from Hilton Head Island, S.C. — A key test facing Mitt Romney in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary is whether he can overcome discomfort about his Mormon faith among the state’s evangelical voters, who made up 60% of the electorate in the 2008 presidential primary, according to exit polls.
Skepticism of Mormons among some of those voters was a factor in Romney’s fourth-place finish here four years ago, and on Friday night, the Republican frontrunner was reminded of the hurdles ahead as he campaigned in South Carolina’s low country.
“Gov. Romney, I’m for you,” his second questioner, Betty Treen of Hilton Head, told him, “But I need to ask you a personal question. Do you believe in the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ?”
"Yes I do,” Romney replied. “And I would note that there are people in our nation that have different beliefs; there are people of the Jewish faith, and people of Islamic faith, and other faiths who believe other things, and our president will be president of the people of all faiths.”
He added that the United States “was founded on the principle of, in some respects, religious tolerance and liberty in this land, and so we welcome people of other faiths.”
“I happen to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and my savior,” the former Massachusetts governor continued, “But I know other people have differing views, and I respect those views and don’t believe those qualify or disqualify people for leadership in our nation… I think, over time, the great majority of us have decided that this is something that doesn’t determine who should be our president, or our vice president or a governor or our senator. But instead we look at the character… the character of the man or woman.”
Romney expressed some of those same sentiments when he addressed his faith with a formal speech during his 2008 presidential run. In recent months, he has spoken more openly about his religion – weaving stories about his Mormon mission into his stump speech on the campaign trail. While knocking on voters’ doors recently in New Hampshire – he joked that it was a far easier task than during his mission in France where he faced repeated rejection.
Romney may be helped in South Carolina this cycle by the fact that economic concerns for many voters have trumped all other considerations. And there is a very real possibility that the evangelical vote could splinter their votes among the other Republican candidates – clearing a path for Romney to win.
But the skepticism remains – voters raise questions about both Romney and President Obama’s faith in interviews and they often express confusion about what Mormons believe. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 47% of evangelicals did not believe that Mormons are Christians.
It was those kind of rumors that led Treen to ask Romney her question in Hilton Head Friday night.
“Although I believe in freedom of religion, I want a Christian president,” Treen said in an interview after the event, “Because it is the most important thing in my life. This country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and I want to see it continue to be governed in that light.”
Treen, 83, said she doesn’t know much about the Mormon faith, “but there are things that I have been told that worry me – that they didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.”
After “deep thought” earlier this week, however, Treen said she had decided to vote for Romney because, “I think he is the only answer to beat Obama.”
Romney’s answer about his faith in Hilton Head Friday night dispelled any lingering concerns.
“I loved it,” Treen said. “I’m so happy that he’s going to be in heaven with me.”