DUNCAN, S.C. — A half-century after the nation struggled over whether a Catholic could serve in the White House, a question is lurking in the Republican race for president:
Can a Mormon?
Mitt Romney won the Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests, adding to a growing sense that the lifelong Mormon will be the candidate to take on President Barack Obama.
If Romney's momentum is halted, South Carolina is the likely place. Evangelicals made up 60 percent of the Republican vote here in 2008.
Interviews across South Carolina over the past week revealed the antipathy some evangelical Christians hold toward Mormonism. But more often voters said it is not a top concern, if one at all, heading into Saturday's primary.
"When JFK ran, people questioned whether his allegiance would be to the Constitution or the pope," said pastor Lamar McAbee of Duncan First Baptist Church, who rejects Mormonism as a form of Christianity. "The bottom line is, he was a fine president," McAbee said of John F. Kennedy. "I don't think there is any reason why a Mormon would not be capable of leading."
What matters most to his congregation in the small town of Duncan is what matters most to voters across the country. "The economy," McAbee said.
Religion is not Romney's only challenge in winning over the state's social conservatives. Many are squeamish about his past moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage.
"Do not defer your judgment to those who do not share your values," rival Rick Santorum said at a candidate forum in Duncan on Friday night, an event that began with several hundred attendees bowing their heads in prayer. Santorum finished eight votes behind Romney in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and took a majority of the evangelical vote.
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Romney has lifelong ties to Mormonism. His father, a former governor of Michigan, was born in a Mormon colony in Mexico and was active in the church. Willard "Mitt" Romney attended Brigham Young University and worked as a Mormon missionary in France. In the early 1980s, Romney was appointed as bishop of the Mormon congregation in Belmont, Mass.
He rarely talked about his faith in the 2008 race. As he began to prepare to run again he faced new questions of whether he could overcome intolerance.
"The great majority of Americans understand that this nation was founded on the principle of religious tolerance and liberty, so most people do not make their decision based on someone's faith. But you don't worry about that," he said in 2011 on ABC's The View.
Romney garnered a dismal 11 percent support from evangelicals in South Carolina in 2008 and his faith was a distinct factor, even as he drew some top endorsements, such as Bob Jones III, chancellor of the conservative Christian college in Greenville that bears the family name.
"As a Christian I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism," Jones said in 2007. "But I'm not voting for a preacher. I'm voting for a president. It boils down to who can best represent conservative American beliefs, not religious beliefs."
This time Romney is buffered by the national preoccupation with jobs and fiscal issues as well as a field of rivals who are splitting the social conservative vote. Romney, 64, is also familiar to voters.
And Mormonism has slowly gained acceptance with Americans.
In 2010, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints launched a multimillion-dollar national advertising campaign that spotlighted everyday people. "I'm a Mormon," the ads concluded.
Jon Huntsman, another Republican candidate and the former governor of Utah, is also Mormon.
"It's just accepted," said Eva Hoover, a 75-year-old Baptist from Pauline, near Spartanburg, who likes Romney's business background.
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South Carolina has a history of dirty politics, and with six days before the primary, something could develop. In the 2008 campaign, voters received anti-Romney mailers from an anonymous source that called attention to polygamy, which the Mormon church banned more than a century ago.
No doubt there are many evangelicals here who are turned off to Romney's candidacy because he is Mormon. But there are also those like Jane Bateman, 68, of Spartanburg, who attended the forum in Duncan.
"I just can't get past it," Bateman said of Mormonism, explaining she prefers the Catholic Santorum. "But if Romney is the nominee I'll hold my nose and vote for him."
If Romney emerges as the nominee, 91 percent of white evangelical Republicans nationally would back him over President Obama, according to a November poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
At the same time, the survey found that nearly two out of three evangelicals do not believe Mormonism is a Christian religion and that 15 percent of evangelicals would not support Romney.
"They look like they're more Christian than Christians if you just look at the surface. But no, they have their own separate Book of Mormon," Eleanor Becker, 74, of Atlantic, Iowa, said when the candidates were crisscrossing her state a month ago. "I could not vote for one to be the head our nation."
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Besides adding to sacred Christian Scripture, Mormons believe in living prophets and apostles. The theology remains unclear to most Americans, lending a perception the religion is secretive.
In October, an ally of GOP hopeful Rick Perry made news by likening Mormonism to a "cult." In December, the political director of Newt Gingrich's campaign in Iowa was forced to resign after disparaging remarks he made about the faith came to light.
"It's not an issue I discuss and it's not an issue that I want to bring up," Gingrich said Friday when asked if South Carolina voters should consider Romney's religion.
But Gingrich, Santorum and Perry have increasingly challenged Romney's social conservative credentials on issues like abortion. Earlier in his political career, Romney was an abortion-rights supporter.
The effort comes as some evangelical leaders are pressing Republicans to coalesce around a single Romney alternative. Trying to head off criticism, Romney released a TV ad in South Carolina last week in which a narrator said he has support from Christian conservatives because "he shares their values: the sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage, and the importance of the family."
During a visit last week to Florida, Romney declared to a crowd in West Palm Beach, "I'm pro-life."
In South Carolina, Romney also has sent out mailers calling attention to his faith and 42-year marriage to wife Ann. It made no reference to his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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Romney has begun to talk more about faith on the campaign trail as he faces the challenge from Santorum and Gingrich, invoking his missionary service when responding to how he could relate to the less fortunate.
But skepticism is still widespread in some circles.
"When you look at the theological basis for evangelical Christianity versus Mormonism, you have a lot of similarities. I think that's what's clouding the issue for a lot of voters," said the Rev. Brad Atkins, who heads the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
Atkins said he would not actively work against Romney, whom he considers "morally good," but hopes voters will carefully consider religion.
"If we fail to not look at the spiritual aspects of a candidate, it would be just as dangerous as to fail to look at the political aspect," he said.
Across South Carolina last week, however, it was easier to find Christian voters who said they were concerned about other matters.
"Religion plays a role in your personal life but as far as politics, I don't associate that too much," said Julie Depasquale, a junior at the University of South Carolina who was one of hundreds of people to attend a Romney rally Wednesday in Columbia.
"This is not the Deep South of the 1930s. It's the New South of 2012," said Ed McMullen, who works in public relations in Columbia and was at a Gingrich event Thursday. "Religion will not matter."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]