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Romney finds support among South Carolina evangelicals

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Mitt Romney's presidential campaign has been embraced in a most unlikely place: at Bob Jones University, the influential Christian college that teaches that the LDS Church is a cult.

In early voting South Carolina, Romney has picked up support among the evangelicals and social conservatives who are a political force.

Last week, Romney won the endorsements of Bob Jones III and Robert Taylor, the founder's grandson and a top dean, respectively here at Bob Jones University.

He also gained the backing of Don Wilton, the immediate past president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and pastor of a nearby megachurch, as well as Dr. John Willke, a founder and past president of the National Right to Life Committee.

During the same one-week period, the former Massachusetts governor eked out a win in a straw poll at the socially conservative Values Voter Summit in Washington.

Taken together, the endorsements and straw poll victory show that while evangelicals may not agree with the tenets of his LDS faith or even the standing of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a Christian faith, some have decided to heed Romney's request for support.

They are looking at his apple-cheeked family and clean-living lifestyle and finding comfort in his pledge to support their social philosophy should he become president.

That's an achievement for a candidate who embraced abortion rights as recently as November 2004. He now says he has changed his mind and wants to overturn the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

"It's hard to see, but I think that they just realized that he's the best of a bad lot. I hate to say it that way," said Dave Woodard, a longtime GOP activist and political science professor at Clemson University.

Romney's standing is hardly secure.

Wilton retracted his endorsement Tuesday, saying he never intended for word of his support for Romney to become national news. "It was my personal error to agree to support Romney's campaign," the pastor said in a statement. "Until this incident I had never endorsed any person running for any elected office, Democrat or Republican."

Woodard, meanwhile, expects that former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, a fellow Southerner, will win the Jan. 19 GOP primary in South Carolina. Thompson, though, has not campaigned here since his announcement tour, nor has he paid a $35,000 fee to appear on the primary ballot. He is expected to do so Wednesday when he returns for his first campaign appearance in more than a month.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a one-time Baptist minister now campaigning for president, also has seen interest among evangelicals deepen since Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas — a conservative darling — dropped out of the race last week.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been near the top in polls of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters.

But Giuliani's standing is shaky among social conservatives who are expected to dominate the vote. Among other things, they disagree with his support for abortion rights and his opposition to a federal ban on gay marriage.

"I think probably his biggest selling point is that he happened to be mayor of New York when 9/11 happened," said Taylor, the Bob Jones University arts and sciences dean who endorsed Romney. "The reaction of the country was pretty unanimous and he just happened to be there."

In endorsing Romney, Taylor said he and Chancellor Bob Jones III looked past their belief that Mormons, as well as Catholics, belong to a "cult." Taylor said among evangelicals, the term more broadly applies to what they consider non-Christian theologies, not the more popular understanding of allegiance to a domineering figurehead.

Jones, who had laryngitis and could not be interviewed by the AP, told the Greenville News: "As a Christian, I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism. But I'm not voting for a preacher; I'm voting for a president."

Wilton, the pastor in nearby Spartanburg, said in his now-retracted endorsement: "While we may not agree on theology, Governor Romney and I agree that this election is about our country heading in the right direction."

In exit polls for the 2004 general election, 88 percent of white voters in South Carolina who described themselves as evangelicals or born-again Christians said they voted for President Bush, while only 11 percent voted for Democrat John Kerry.

More recently, data from three recent AP-Ipsos polls showed that among born-again Christians, 22 percent said they'd vote for Thompson, 17 percent for Giuliani and 13 percent for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Romney was at 8 percent, essentially tied with Huckabee, who had 9 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had 8 percent.

Most of Romney's support, 72 percent, came from self-described conservatives, 21 percent from moderates and only 5 percent from liberals.

Kirk Alford, a 62-year-old former Army Ranger and retired federal court official from Greenville, described himself as a conservative — and pragmatic — voter as he voiced support for Romney.

"To me, the key is we really need to find somebody who can beat Hillary Clinton. I just think Clinton would be a disaster," Alford said.

Kendell Hawkins, a 36-year-old paralegal from Greenville, said she favored Giuliani because of his leadership following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but also was amenable to Romney despite their religious differences.

"I'm not going to judge somebody's religion, what their personal decisions are," Hawkins said. "If he can make good decisions and lead us and bring us back to be a strong country, then that's all I care about."