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GILBERT, S.C. — Lois Buffington shook her head when she talked about the evangelical Christians she knows who won't vote for Mitt Romney in Saturday's presidential primary here because he's a Mormon.
"That angers me, and I am a Southern Baptist from day one and will always be," said Buffington, a retired business owner from nearby Lexington who stood outside in the rain Friday to hear Romney speak on the final full day of campaigning before Saturday's primary vote.
"Mr. Romney is a Mormon because that's his belief and his choice. That's what America was built on, freedom of choice," she said. "If the rest of us had the morals the Mormon people have, we wouldn't have any problems."
Mr. Romney is a Mormon because that's his belief and his choice. That's what America was built on, freedom of choice.
–Lois Buffington, South Carolina voter
New polls show Romney no longer leads the GOP field in South Carolina, thanks to a sudden surge in support for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Romney's campaign is already shifting its focus to Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
Buffington, who supported Romney since his first bid for the White House in 2008, said she's "been preaching" to those who don't see Mormons as fellow Christians to put aside their concerns about his faith.
That's a tall order in South Carolina, she said, a state seen as the first real test in the presidential race of a candidate's ability to connect with the GOP's conservative base.
"I believe some of the people here are more bothered by Mr. Romney being a Mormon than Newt Gingrich having three wives," Buffington said.
Gingrich came out on top in a Clemson University poll released Friday, with the support of 36 percent of the likely voters surveyed Wednesday and Thursday compared to 24 percent for Romney.
If it's extremely close between Romney and Gingrich, and you're getting down to hundreds of votes, sure, I think Romney's identification with the Mormon faith could make the difference.
–Oran Smith, Palmetto Family Council
Palmetto Family Council President Oran Smith said while the economy is the key issue this election for the evangelical voters his organization represents, Romney's religion remains enough of a concern that it could conceivably cost him the race.
"If it's extremely close between Romney and Gingrich, and you're getting down to hundreds of votes, sure, I think Romney's identification with the Mormon faith could make the difference," Smith said.
Still, Smith said, "While I think it's there and it's going to be there, I just don't think it's going to move a lot of votes. I don't think it's going to move tens of thousands of votes. It's going to be very random and not very powerful."
James Benson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Blythewood, said Romney's faith has come up "not nearly as much as I had expected and not as much as last time. He's paid his dues."
Benson, who was passing out bags of "Grits for Mitt" from a family mill at a recent Romney rally, said voters understand "if you elect a Mormon, you know what you're getting, like it or not."
Kris Vick, a retired first-grade teacher and former hospital chaplain from Spartanburg, said she was willing to overlook Romney's religion.
"If I could have the perfect candidate, I would prefer he would not be a Mormon, but that's OK," Vick said. "I realize they call themselves Christians."
She said ideally, the GOP nominee would be a fellow evangelical Christian, but added she believed "the role of the president is not to evangelize."
Sheryl Moureaux, a retired high school teacher from Eastover, said she has "lots of friends who have problems with Mormons" but doesn't feel she should judge Romney's beliefs.
"As long as he says he's a Christian, I believe him," Moureaux said. Other voters, though, may not be so willing, she said.
"I think there will be a group of people in this state that will be an issue for," Moureaux said. "Romney has such great family values … you think that would make a difference."
Mormons have been in South Carolina since the 1830s. Today nearly 37,000 LDS Church members live here and a temple was dedicated in Columbia in 1999.
University of South Carolina political science professor Robert Oldendick said he doesn't expect Romney's religion to hurt him at the polls.
"It doesn't help Romney, but it's really not, in my estimation, that much of a factor," Oldendick said, noting the voters who question his faith probably have already rejected him as too moderate.
Besides, Oldendick said, the economy is "dwarfing any religious issue" in a state with close to 10 percent unemployment.