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In South Carolina in 2012, being Mormon may matter

South Carolina has a ready-made base for candidates such as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, or even Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum.

The 2012 hopefuls who speak the same language as the state's fiscal hawks or those who appeal to the party's conservative Christian wing have their paths to the presidency through South Carolina charted before them.

Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney, meanwhile, have an X factor: They're both Mormons.

The state has a 30-year record of predicting the Republican nominee for president, but if it's going to be one of the two former governors - Huntsman of Utah or Romney of Massachusetts - they must establish their South Carolina base.

Nationally, 68 percent of Americans say whether a presidential candidate is Mormon doesn't matter, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Still, politicos in South Carolina suggest in a state where nearly half of adults call themselves evangelical Protestants, it just might matter.

The insiders also argue that Huntsman and Romney have a bigger struggle, but with another "m" word - moderate.

"You do have a sense that this is tough territory," said Mark Tompkins, University of South Carolina political science professor. "Romney is a fiscal moderate who happens to be Mormon. Huntsman is a fiscal moderate who happens to be Mormon.

"Neither of them has an obvious constituent base in South Carolina.

"It is not about religion so much as it is about ideology."

Boots on the ground

Romney's campaign - which has been accused of writing off South Carolina after a relatively poor showing in 2008 - did not return several messages from The Post and Courier. Last go around Romney won the endorsements of tea party darlings U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and then-Rep. Nikki Haley, as well as Bob Jones III, the grandson and namesake of the fundamental Christian university founder.

As of now, Romney is considered the candidate nationally to beat with a formidable war chest that leads his rivals. He has racked up some endorsements in South Carolina, including a couple of Midlands legislators at a May campaign stop. But his lack of presence in the state for the 2012 cycle raises doubts about Romney's own beliefs in his ability to win South Carolina's first in the South GOP primary.

Huntsman made his first Lowcountry stop Sunday at a town hall event hosted by U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican. Huntsman has made a few stops in the state so far this year, and picked up several key endorsements, including that of former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster and the late Gov. Carroll Campbell's wife and sons.

Huntsman's state spokesman Joel Sawyer said the one-time governor and former U.S. ambassador to China is introducing himself to South Carolina voters.

Huntsman's Republican foes question his credentials for his service as part of President Barack Obama's administration in his recent position as ambassador to China. Sawyer, the past state GOP executive director, said what they fail to mention is Huntsman's service to the administrations of Reagan and President George H.W. Bush.

As South Carolinians get to know Huntsman, Sawyer said they'll be impressed by his record of cutting taxes, balancing the budget, and protecting and creating jobs. Those are the highest-radar issues, he said.

"The choice will become clear," Sawyer said.

Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, and Santorum, a former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, with their appeal to South Carolina's Christian right, have been among the candidates to spend the most time in the state so far.

The GOP candidates also include Herman Cain, founder of Godfather's Pizza, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Others, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, may still decide to run.

Mormons and S.C.

Mormons are active in South Carolina, with missionaries and chapels and meetinghouses for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dotting the Lowcountry, Upstate and Midlands. They are a fast-growing Christian denomination with a majority that votes Republican. Even so, since they make up only about a half-percent of South Carolinians, Mormons are not expected to sway the GOP primary.

James Freston, director of the Charleston Public Affairs Council for the LDS Church, said 4,650 Mormons belong to 10 Lowcountry congregations. Freston said the interest among Mormons in the presidential candidates fall across the spectrum, not necessarily tilting toward Huntsman or Romney.

"I have heard many times among members here that they are quite certain that if either of these candidates were to be elected, their leadership would be of enormous integrity," Freston said.

Nationally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declares its political neutrality. Its mission, according to an open statement, is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians. The church does not endorse or promote candidates or parties, but encourages its members to be responsible citizens.

Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the Latter-day Saints Church, said Mormons welcome the chance to share their faith, and Huntsman and Romney do bring attention to the church. But so have other high-profile events, such as the 2002 Olympic Games that were hosted in Salt Lake City, Hawkins said.

The church actively tries to distance itself from politics, but with a worldwide membership that now tops 14 million and ranks as the fourth largest religion in the United States, the church is a player.

"This has both positive and negative elements, as understanding of our faith lags far behind the name recognition it's currently receiving," Hawkins said. "It is great to have an opportunity to tell people about our faith, but also requires a lot of effort to correct old stereotypes and misinformation that continue to be propagated."

Peter Beck, an assistant religion professor at Charleston Southern University, said Mormonism was once seen by many as a religious oddity or a cult. Today- evidenced by the Huntsman and Romney campaigns - many see it as part of the larger Christian tradition so prominent in American society, Beck said.

Religion is a significant factor in the political process for the faithful, but even the most religious person will rarely only vote according to faith, Beck said.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said religion should be a key factor for the faithful at the ballot box.

"I don't think as churches or groups we should endorse," Land said. "We should be looking for candidates to endorse us and our convictions and our values."

Religious views are a factor in Huntsman's and Romney's campaigns, Land said.

About a third of white evangelical Protestants are less inclined to support a Mormon candidate, compared with 24 percent of those who aren't aligned with any religion and 19 percent of white mainline Protestants, the Pew study found.

"That's obviously a disadvantage, but I don't thinks it's insurmountable," Land said.