Romney Focuses On Security; Voters Weigh His Faith

While people were talking about the religion of former Gov. Mitt Romney at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Romney was wrapping up a two-day swing through South Carolina. Romney finished fourth in this state's primary in 2008, and his Mormonism was one of the issues seen as holding him back. This time around, there's been less talk about religion and more about policy, but Romney still has a tough row to hoe in this early-voting state. NPR's Ari Shapiro explains why.

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Mitt Romney spoke at the Value Voters Summit this morning, but he made no mention of the remarks about his faith. The former Massachusetts governor was just back from a two-day swing through South Carolina, where he finished fourth in the 2008 primary, and his faith was considered one of the issues that was seen as holding him back. This time around, there's been less talk about religion and more about policy. But Mr. Romney still has a ways to go to win over this early-voting state. NPR's Ari Shapiro explains why.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Political scientist Bob Oldendick moved from Ohio to South Carolina more than 20 years ago. When he started doing political polling for the University of South Carolina, he was puzzled to find that Wednesday nights were a total bust.

BOB OLDENDICK: Refusal rates were higher, and coming from Cincinnati to here was kind of like what's going on? In fact, even among our staff, about 40 percent of the people do not work on Wednesday nights because they're in church.

SHAPIRO: In South Carolina, church is not reserved for Sunday morning. That's a far cry from Mitt Romney's New England which is the least religious section of the United States. And here in South Carolina, Romney's Mormon faith has been an issue for southern evangelical voters too.

OLDENDICK: And that's part of the reason why he finished fourth in 2008. It's a handicap that he starts with in terms of the religious orientation of voters that are going to turn out in that GOP primary.

SHAPIRO: It's easy to paint South Carolina as a monolith of conservative, values-driven church goers, but Charleston County GOP chairman, Lin Bennett says her state is more complex than that.

LIN BENNETT: There's an old saying in South Carolina that if you live in the upstate they want to know what church you go to. If you live in the midland, they want to know what business you're in, and if you live on the coast, they want to know what drink you'll have.

SHAPIRO: Being on the coast, naturally Bennett and I met in a bar. Our drink was nothing stronger than sweet tea, but at the counter, Bob Mullin was having a beer. He showed how tough South Carolina voters can be for Romney to win over.

BOB MULLIN: I think people are a little anti-Romney because of the healthcare he got passed in Massachusetts, and they associate him with big government, big taxes, and that's anti-South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: And just in case his feelings weren't clear, Mullin added this:

MULLIN: I think a Massachusetts Republican is not a real Republican.

SHAPIRO: South Carolina is the home state of Senator Jim DeMint, considered the father of the Tea Party in the U.S. Senate. Romney has never been a Tea Party favorite, even though he won DeMint's endorsement four years ago. So how does someone like Romney counter the headwinds he faces here? One option is to bring in the troops, literally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: At the Citadel Military Academy in Charleston yesterday, a stage full of cadets served as backdrop for a speech where Romney laid out his foreign policy approach, emphasizing a strong defense.

MITT ROMNEY: Time and again we've seen that attempts to balance the budget by weakening our military only lead to a far higher price in the future, not only in treasure, but also in blood.

SHAPIRO: The speech won cheers from the audience and may endear him to South Carolina's large military community. But in the 2012 elections, foreign policy will matter far less than economics. In a way, that's lucky for Romney who is better known for his experience in business than in foreign policy. Those business chops endear Romney to people like retired nurse, Dot Brown. She went to see Romney speak on Thursday at the retired World War II vessel, the U.S. Yorktown.

DOT BROWN: I'm so scared for our country. I'm scared for my grandchildren, what they're gonna face down the road, and I just hope that we can put a Republican back in there and get this country back on the right track. And I think with Mitt Romney we can do that.

SHAPIRO: Brown says she wasn't too impressed with Romney four years ago, but her opinion of him has changed. That year, Senator John McCain won the state, and ultimately his party's nomination. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Charleston.

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