Romney Tries To Bridge S.C. GOP's Ideological Schism

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has campaigned over the past several days in South Carolina, reaching out to different varieties of Republican voters. The Greenville area has a deep evangelical tradition in the state party and is now home to several big manufacturing facilities.

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A split has divided the Republican presidential race. On one side, fiscal conservatives tend to prefer Mitt Romney. On the other, social conservatives prefer just about anyone else. Well, this week that schism moved to South Carolina. NPR's Ari Shapiro has our story from Greenville.

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Show up at Bob Jones University around 11:15 on any weekday morning and the campus will be a ghost town. Wait a few minutes and it will look like someone flipped a switch, students and teachers milling everywhere. You've just seen the end of chapel. It's daily, and it's mandatory. This school is a bastion of the most conservative brand of evangelical Christianity. Many of these students are just old enough to vote for the first time in the presidential primary a week from Saturday. Daniel Flotton is planning on casting his vote for Rick Santorum. He says religion is not the only deciding factor for him.

DANIEL FLOTTON: It's not that important for me as you can fake religion, say you're a Christian just to get votes. So, for instance, Mitt Romney, his Mormonism is not really a turnoff as much as his politics.

SHAPIRO: Twenty-year-old Emily Downing has a similar view. She's planning on voting for Ron Paul.

EMILY DOWNING: I wouldn't necessarily vote for somebody just because they're a Christian because not every Christian has amazing leadership abilities, but I would want them to have good morals. So that is important to me.

SHAPIRO: David Overly, who's voting for Mitt Romney, thinks a lot about a candidate's religion.

DAVID OVERLY: I think it's important. I think it's very important.

SHAPIRO: And so, the fact that he's Mormon, does it give you pause at all?

OVERLY: Yeah, it does. It does some. But again, we - you get in a situation where you look for the best candidate, and I think he's the best one.

SHAPIRO: That may not sound revolutionary. But until a decade ago, this school referred to Catholicism and Mormonism as cults. Bob Jones was once hugely influential in Republican politics.

CARL ABRAMS: That really goes all the way back to the 1920s, probably, with the founder of the university.

SHAPIRO: Carl Abrams teaches history and political science here. Bob Jones used to be a station of the cross for aspiring Republican presidential candidates. That changed after the 2000 campaign. George W. Bush delivered a stump speech here without mentioning the school's ban on interracial dating. The school ultimately dropped the ban and apologized. President Bush apologized, too, for failing to speak out. Today, Bob Jones no longer officially endorses or hosts candidates. Abrams thinks it's for the best: Why invite people's criticism?

ABRAMS: If they are offended by our stand for supernatural Christianity, that is understandable, and we're not surprised. But suffering for political causes, that is unwise.

SHAPIRO: So this week, something happened that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago.

MITT ROMNEY: Thank you. Thank you. My goodness. Thank you. We got some old friends here this morning. You're kind to be here.

SHAPIRO: The man who is expected to be the next Republican presidential nominee came within five minutes drive of Bob Jones, and you would never have known the school existed. So why did Romney come here at all? Business consultant Ralph Callahan was in the audience of the rally. He explained that Greenville used to be a textile capital of the world. When that industry went offshore, city leaders courted foreign companies, and it paid off.

RALPH CALLAHAN: BMW put their first non-German plant here. Bosch is here. Hitachi is here. There is just - there are probably more investment - foreign investment in the upstate of South Carolina per capita than any place in the United States.

SHAPIRO: And all that foreign investment has brought an influx of people who have changed the voter gene pool in the region. The evangelicals met the businessmen. And they mixed, says Jim Guth, who teaches political science here at Furman University.

JIM GUTH: The gap between those two groups isn't nearly as wide as it is in other parts of the country in the Republican Party. A lot of business conservatives are also social conservatives. They're church people. They're active parishioners of various conservative congregations.

SHAPIRO: So the fact that the Michelin Man lives in the same town as Bob Jones allows Romney to come here and make a pitch like this:

ROMNEY: I want to make America the most attractive place in the world again for investments.

SHAPIRO: ...without having to worship at the altar of the evangelicals. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Greenville, South Carolina.

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