Will Romney's speech change any minds among evangelicals in South Carolina?
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) – Two prominent voices in South Carolina Christian politics watched Mitt Romney's speech at Capitol City News & Maps in Columbia on Thursday morning: Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, and Joe Mack, public policy director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
Their thoughts? A solid performance, they said, but unlikely to impact what South Carolina’s evangelicals think about Mormonism.
"It was a good speech, but I'm not sure he changed anybody's mind," Mack said. "I'm not sure it explained the difference in Mormonism and other denominations."
Mack, a Baptist, said he was sure he and Romney were far apart theologically. But he added that they likely shared many of the same positions on "values" issues.
Christian conservatives are crucial to Romney's presidential bid, and white evangelical Protestants constitute more than half of likely South Carolina’s Republican voters, according to a recent AP/Pew Poll.
Thursday's speech was aimed squarely at those evangelicals in Iowa and South Carolina who may remain skeptical of his faith.
Smith said Romney nailed a few references sure to resonate with conservative religious voters here in the Palmetto State.
"For instance, his sadness over the coldness of religion in Europe," Smith said. "There is not a Christian church that that's not discussed on a regular basis."
The speech may have been short on theology – the word "Mormon" was mentioned just once – but Smith said Romney did well to avoid talking about the intricacies of his faith. And he would have been in bigger trouble yet had he tried to compare Mormonism to another form of Protestantism.
"For a minute there I thought he was going to go in the ditch," Smith said, comparing the Mormon faith to some of the Protestant Christian groups he mentioned, like the Lutheran and Pentacostal denominations. "I thought he was going to say that they were the same. But then he turned and he went toward Islam and the Jewish faith, and at that point I was more comfortable because at that point he wasn’t trying to say he was just another brand of Protestantism or Christianity."
Mack maintained that Romney's faith, not his past support for abortion rights or his Massachusetts pedigree, could still handicap his presidential bid, "at least among Baptists here in South Carolina."
– CNN South Carolina Producer Peter Hamby