New Hampshire Voters React to Romney's Speech

As Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke Thursday about his faith, voters in New Hampshire listened with interest.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to a group of voters in Concord, New Hampshire.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer sat down with them to watch Mitt Romney's speech.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: It's typical of New Hampshire in the primary season that if you bring people together, they'll chat about candidates they've recently seen. John McCain has been here all week.

Unidentified Man #1: Absolutely.

Unidentified Man #2: ...veteran states ceremony up in the - straight down the street from me, but...

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: ...he was great. His mother was there.

WERTHEIMER: This particular group saw Mr. Romney in person at the Rotary on Tuesday. So we invited them to listen to his speech on faith. They're Republicans and independents and they liked the speech.

Unidentified Man #3: I think he did a magnificent job embracing his faith rather than distancing himself. But there was a clear distinction between the way John F. Kennedy handled this and the way Mitt Romney did. So it was a pretty impressive speech.

Unidentified Man #4: I thought it was a excellent speech. I think he did himself a lot of good. My feeling is that the most important factor is that no matter what your religion is, it should not cloud the judgment of any of our elected officials.

Mr. LYMAN COUSENS: I thought he appeared more presidential than any other candidate - Republican or Democrat - and I think the 25 percent or whatever that wouldn't vote for a Mormon, you know, I think there's probably 30 percent that wouldn't vote for Hillary under any circumstances. So you know, there's always that constituency that isn't going to vote for something.

WERTHEIMER: That was former banker Lyman Cousens, who's sergeant at arms for the Concord Rotary. You also heard Tim Sink of the Chamber of Commerce and Dr. Richard Barryman. No one in this crowd had any particular concerns about Mr. Romney's religious affiliation.

Fred Kitch(ph) who owns a local flower shop thought Mormonism might not be the issue here that it is in other regions of the country.

Mr. FRED KITCH (Businessman): In New Hampshire I think the religion issue probably is less of an important issue than it might be perhaps south of here, you know, southern United States. You know, in the live free or die state I'm not sure we pass a lot of judgments on that stuff.

WERTHEIMER: Perhaps because of that attitude, our group felt Mr. Romney had said more than he probably needed to about his faith, his Mormonism.

Tia Bersharan(ph) is associate director of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Ms. TIA BERSHARAN: I think there was one statement that he did make, though, where he targeted a group of people that may be uneducated on the Mormon faith. And that's when he stated our faith believes in Jesus Christ as the son of the God and as the savior. And by saying that statement, he's educating a lot of people that have no idea about what Mormons believe in.

WERTHEIMER: Glenn Curry(ph), who's a journalist and a poet, and Les Sherman(ph), who's a retired CEO, both thought questions about a candidate's religion probably ought not to be raised in the first place.

Mr. GLENN CURRY (Journalist): I think he had to respond to this speech because - because the issue came up, but it's a shame it came up. I mean, I personally thought John Kennedy put this thing to bed pretty well back in the early '60s.

Mr. LES SHERMAN: What happens if a person of Jewish faith now comes to the forefront? Are we going through it one more time? What it says to me is, is are we judges of these - of religions? And it's sad.

WERTHEIMER: Everyone in our group had seen Romney speak at the rotary lunch on Tuesday and no one was especially interested in Mr. Romney. I asked Lyman Cousens if Romney impressed him.

Mr. COUSENS: Well, I think he did today. I don't think he did Tuesday at the rotary meeting. But I'd like to ask a question maybe for the group, and that is what does this do for Mitt Romney? I mean, what does this do for his candidacy?

Mr. GARY MILLER: When Reagan stood before the crowd, everybody just innately knew what he meant. And I'm starting to get that same feeling from Romney, that there's a confidence that's there in his presentation when he does things, that he's in control. And I don't see that with other people.

WERTHEIMER: That last voice was Gary Miller, who works for the local utility. If this was supposed to be a speech about faith, our Concord Rotarians didn't feel they needed one for Mr. Romney. But as a political event, it seemed to work. At least two Rotarians said they'd take another look at Mitt Romney.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, New Hampshire.

MONTAGNE: You can go to npr.org to hear Mitt Romney's speech and read analysis by NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

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