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Mitt Romney twice lost the SC Primary

Excerpt from Front Row Seat at the Circus by Jim Heath.

From Chapter “Red, White & Blue”

The 2002 Winter Games proved to the world that America was back on its feet. The $1.3 billion dollar event made tens of millions in profit and it gave Mitt Romney some old-fashioned red, white, and blue credentials that he hoped would play well in future campaigns.

But it didn’t solve the “elephant in the room” problem that was widely whispered as Romney set his eyes on a White House run.

America has never elected a Mormon president and many evangelical Christians in South Carolina were determined to keep it that way.

Influential South Carolina Republican and conservative leaders told me privately that Romney could expect fierce opposition from the religious right, especially in the voter-rich upstate—the key area for Republicans to carry to win the state.

The religion did not help in practical political terms either. It prohibits drinking alcohol—even iced tea for that matter—which meant there would be no smiling picture of Romney (as there had been for Reagan and about every other presidential candidate) in a bar holding up a beer to demonstrate they were the working man’s candidate. And not only was he from that elusive 1 percent world but, unlike say the Kennedys or Bushes, he didn’t have those cool drunken stories to tell which a majority of voters relate to.

The religion issue was certainly not new to a presidential candidate. Shortly before the 1960 election, Democratic nominee John F. Kennedy addressed Protestant leaders about being a Catholic. There were rumors he would get direct orders from the Pope.

“I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters and the Church does not speak for me,” Kennedy said at the time.

And he offered this warning for the future: “For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.”

JFK won, but remains our only elected Catholic president to date.

With that in mind, I asked Romney if he was preparing to draft a similar speech.

“I know that the theology of my faith is different than the theology of other faiths, but this is the time to talk about political leadership. As one great evangelical leader said the other day, ‘we’re not looking for a pastor in chief.’”

I pressed Romney on whether he envisioned a JFK-type speech in the future.

“I get asked about my faith a great deal and I’m happy to respond to it anytime someone asks a question. Maybe there will be a speech that goes into it in some depth. What’s encouraging to me is that evangelical Christian leaders and faithful members across the country are supporting my campaign.”

Almost a year to the day after our interview, Romney delivered his “Faith in America” speech, which echoed Kennedy’s words.

“Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions,” said Romney.

From Chapter “Off and Running”

On Saturday, January 21st, 2012 South Carolina held its first-in-the-south presidential primary. Since 1980, the winner of this primary had gone on to be the Republican Party nominee. But things really went haywire in 2012.

Jim Heath and Mitt Romney

As we discussed earlier in the book, Romney had gone from frontrunner to fourth place in South Carolina in 2008. The Mormon issue was always a factor in the evangelical, voter-rich upstate. And Newt Gingrich was a neighbor, the longtime conservative politician from next-door Georgia.

On air that night as it became clear Gingrich would win by a comfortable margin I said, “This is a big win for Gingrich, but Georgia is to South Carolina what Massachusetts was in New Hampshire. Gingrich was the regional southern candidate. He was backed today by the 65 percent of primary voters who described themselves as born-again evangelicals. Romney is a Mormon and the fact is, in the Bible Belt in a competitive primary, that is an issue.” Gingrich cruised to an easy win with 40 percent of the vote to Romney’s 29 percent (up slightly from the 23 percent he won four years earlier.) Santorum was third with 17 percent and Paul ended with 13 percent.

That night, I interviewed one of Romney’s top supporters, Jay Hottinger, a pragmatic Republican state representative from a central Ohio district. “Romney can’t crack 30 percent in a state that’s determined the nominee since 1980,” I said to him, “where does that leave the campaign looking ahead to Ohio?”

“It’s been a very difficult week and a very difficult election night for the Romney campaign,” Hottinger admitted. “But he’s steady. We knew from the beginning this wasn’t a sprint but a test of endurance. Mitt Romney is not a regional candidate and we knew the South is where he was going to have the most difficulty.”

Keep reading at Front Row Seat at the Circus.

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