The Ticket

Romney makes new overtures to social conservatives in South Carolina

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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Romney addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition rally (Charles Dharapak/AP)

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C.—In what was billed as a political forum but felt more like an old-fashioned tent revival, Mitt Romney did his very best to fit in.

Standing on a stage before hundreds of evangelical voters on hand for a cattle call of presidential candidates sponsored by the South Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition, Romney did not attempt to mimic the fire and brimstone of Rick Perry, who appeared on stage before him.

"Get the firehouse out because I'm gonna put 'em on fire out there!" an unusually energetic Perry had exclaimed, amid wild cheers. "You're going to have to wet down the whole crowd. God and country! God and country!"

Romney instead kicked off his remarks with a corny joke about how he wore jeans that day because it was a revival—even though he wears jeans almost every day on the campaign trail. He then proceeded with the tried and true, the now well-tested and highly familiar lines of his usual stump speech, in which he trashes President Barack Obama's handling of jobs and the economy.

But midway through his speech, Romney deviated from his usual script to offer a contrast between him and Obama on a set of issues aimed squarely at conservative South Carolina voters.

During his campaign swings through Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney largely avoided mentioning social issues unless directly asked about them by a voter. But here in South Carolina, Romney has made subtle tweaks to his message.

At the candidate forum, Romney mentioned comments that Vice President Joe Biden made last August during a trip to China that appeared to condone the country's efforts to control its population by limiting families to just one child. ("Your policy has been one which I fully understand--I'm not second-guessing--of one child per family.") Biden later clarified his remarks, insisting that he strongly opposes the policy.

Romney took aim at Biden on Monday as part of a larger critique about Obama's stance on social issues.

"His path is one that sends the vice president of the United States to China," Romney said of Obama, "where he tells the people there that he understands their one-child policy, where he understands all that's associated with that policy, the abuses associated with that policy.

"My view is the next president of the United States should stand up for the sanctity of human life in this country, and anywhere in the world where it is threatened," Romney continued, eliciting enthusiastic applause.

Romney also criticized Obama for trying "to pave the path for same-sex marriage to spread across this country."

"My view is that we should defend the Defense of Marriage Act and that we should have a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman," he said.

Speaking of Obama, Romney told the crowd, "His path is one that as you watch it, we become more and more of a secular nation."

Romney's advisers believe a win in the South Carolina primary on Saturday would virtually lock up the nomination for him—or at least add to his air of inevitability in the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Romney aides don't believe he'll win a majority of the votes from evangelicals here—which, according to a recent NBC News/Marist poll, make up roughly half the electorate. But they do think that if he can pull at least a sizable sliver of their support, he can win Saturday's primary.

Over the weekend, Romney's campaign began airing radio ads across the state featuring Mary Ann Glendon, a prominent pro-life activist, calling Romney a "great success story" in the pro-life movement. And, as the Wall Street Journal first reported, Romney's campaign began conducting robo-calls over the weekend talking up his position on abortion.

Romney will spend his final days on the campaign trail in the northern half of the state, hitting cities like Greenville that are packed with social conservatives.

"We're going where the votes are," Romney strategist Stuart Stevens told Yahoo News.

Heading into South Carolina, many political observers speculated that evangelical Christians in the state would be skeptical of his Mormon religion. But it's not entirely clear how big of an issue it actually is this campaign.

A woman at a Romney rally in Hilton Head on Friday stood and asked the candidate if he believes in the "divine saving grace of Jesus Christ."

"Yes I do," Romney replied, adding that he would be the "president of all faiths," citing the nation's melting pot of religious beliefs.

Romney's outreach to social conservatives in South Carolina is more than a short-term tactic to win the state's primary on Saturday. If Romney wins the Republican nomination—as his advisers believe he will—he'll also have to persuade social conservatives to turn out for his campaign in November if he has any chance of defeating Obama.

Judging by the exit polls in Iowa, Romney has a long way to go. Just 14 percent of self-described "born again" caucusgoers in the state supported Romney—a number his campaign has to improve on this Saturday if he wants to win South Carolina.

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