|The Mormon who wants to be president|
By Toby Harnden in Aiken, South Carolina|
The Daily Telegraph - London, England
The Republican presidential candidate whose telegenic looks have earned him the nickname "Matinee Mitt" prefers to talk about keeping taxes low and defeating global jihad.
But many voters want to know how he is guided by his Mormon faith.
"I get asked a good deal," Mitt Romney told The Daily Telegraph. "I'm proud of my heritage, proud of my faith."
Being a Mormon would not be an impediment to reaching the White House, the former Massachusetts governor insisted.
"People want to see a person of faith lead the country, but they don't particularly care which band of faith that might be — as long as they share the values which are known as being part of our American heritage, and I certainly share those values."
Mr Romney, 59, is running third in polls behind Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Senator John McCain but has built an organisational and fund-raising structure that leads many Republicans to believe he will emerge as the party's nominee next year.
His impressive record in salvaging the 2002 Winter Olympics and balancing the budget in the most Left-wing state in America, as well as an appearance and manner that marks him out as a White House occupant from central casting, also give him powerful advantages.
But Mr Romney's attempts to stake out a position as the most socially conservative of the three main candidates are complicated by his Mormon faith as well as a liberal stance on abortion rights as recently as 2004.
"He's going to have to come out and discuss being a Mormon," said Mary Hahn, 50, at a Romney event at Lizard's Thicket diner in Columbia, state capital of South Carolina.
A crucial early primary there next January will test opinion in the conservative Deep South.
"It's not a problem for me but he will have to say that this is not a cult and this is a form of religion that's very similar to Christianity."
In fact, Mormons are Christians and Mr Romney has stated that "I personally believe that Jesus Christ is my saviour". They follow the Bible, as well as the Book of Mormon, a religious text published in 1830 by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.
Mr Romney remarks in almost every stump speech that he is a father of five, grandfather of 10 and has been "going steady for about 40 years" with the same woman. Occasionally, he jokes about polygamy, asserting that marriage is between "a man and a woman and a woman".
Polygamy was outlawed by the Mormon Church in 1890 but is continued, to this day by breakaway factions. More than a century ago, Mr Romney's great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, had five wives and moved to Mexico to escape his Church's new stricture on marriage.
Mr Romney declines to discuss his personal faith but, in a re-working of the notorious "boxers or briefs" MTV question asked of President Bill Clinton in 1994, has had to endure inquiries about whether he wears traditional Mormon undergarments. "I'll just say those sorts of things I'll keep private," he has responded.
There are indications that Mr Romney's strong faith could be an advantage, particularly because Mr McCain once accused the religious Right of exerting an "evil influence" and Mr Giuliani has been married three times.
"Him being a Mormon is a big deal for me," said Carolyn Watkins, 53, who bumped into Mr Romney in the diner. "Mormons believe in faith and family and I trust them. I'm an evangelical Christian and I have a whole lot more similar things going on with them than differences."
His change of heart on abortion may be more problematic. Mr Romney had previously said that he wanted to "sustain and support" the 1973 landmark Roe-Wade ruling by the US Supreme Court that legalised abortion.
His Damascene conversion, he said, came in 2004 when a doctor told him that there was no moral dilemma over stem cell research because embryos were destroyed after 14 days.
"It struck me very powerfully that the Roe versus Wade approach has so cheapened the value of human life that someone could think it's not a moral issue to destroy embryos that have been created solely for the purpose of research... I am firmly pro-Life."
He describes himself as a "conservative Republican".
A strong supporter of the Iraq war and President George W Bush, the former venture capitalist argues that his 25-year business career equips him to solve America's problems. His has an optimistic, can-do vision. "Every time America faces tough times, we dig deep and rise to the occasion," he told Rotarians in the town of Aiken.
"Don't get overwhelmed with the challenges... We're the hope of the Earth. We always will be."
Originally published February 1, 2007
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