BOCA RATON, Fla. Mitt Romney defended his membership in the LDS Church and his money at the Republican presidential debate Thursday as polls show a close race between the former Massachusetts governor and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Although the debate questions focused on the economy and then ranged from national defense to English-language requirements and gun ownership rights, moderators asked Romney about polls that indicate people do not believe a Mormon can unite the country. They also asked him how much of his own personal fortune he would be willing to put into the campaign.
Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a topic of discussion since his campaign started.
Moderator Brian Williams said an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll coming out today said that 44 percent of those polled said a Mormon president would have a difficult time uniting the country.
"You know, I just don't believe that people in this country are going to choose their candidate based on which church he or she goes to ...," Romney said during the debate at Florida Atlantic University. "My faith isn't terribly well known around this country. But I don't think for a minute the American people are going to say, 'You know what, we're not going to vote for this guy for a secular position because of his church."'
Romney, who gave a speech specifically focusing on religion late last year, said the Founding Fathers and the Constitution say that no religious test should ever be required for public office.
"I don't believe for a minute that Republicans or Americans for that matter are going to impose a religious test when the founders said it's as un-American as anything you can think of," Romney said. "I just don't believe it."
Beyond the religion question, money is a key issue in these remaining days before Tuesday's primary in Florida and the Feb. 5 Super-Duper Tuesday, when Republican elections will take place in more than 20 states.
Television ads, town hall meetings, bus tours and plane rides all cost money, and candidates have to pick and choose how to spend their remaining dollars wisely.
Romney would not specifically answer a question from moderator Tim Russert on how much of his own money he has put into the campaign so far or how much of his own fortune he would use. Romney said he would release his latest campaign finance report on Jan. 31, when it is due, "and probably not a minute earlier."
"But why not tell the voters of Florida and across the country how much of your own wealth you're spending, so they can make a judgment and factor that into their own decision?" said Russert, who hosts a show on MSNBC.
Romney said he was not concerned about the voters knowing how much he has spent. But he doesn't want his opponents in the race to know, he said.
"We have some competitive information we make sure that we use for our own benefit," Romney said.
Romney noted that he has raised more money than any other candidate and acknowledged he has dipped into his own fortune for the campaign.
"I can't imagine having gone to my friends and asked them to do what they've done, going out and raising money in my behalf, without saying I'm going to put some of my contribution behind this effort as well," Romney said, "because frankly, I think it's important."
Romney said he is using his own money because he is concerned about the "America my kids will inherit and their kids will inherit and the kids of the entire nation will inherit.
"I happen to think that at a time like this, we need someone whose life has been in the private sector, who knows how America works, not just how Washington works, but how America works. And for that reason, I'm giving it my all," Romney said.
The race in Florida is close. Fox News reported Thursday that a Mason-Dixon survey of 400 likely Republican voters had Romney at 30 percent compared to McCain's 26 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is at 18 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is at 15 percent. The survey was taken Jan. 22-23.
On the Democratic side, a Jan. 21-23 survey of 400 likely Democratic Florida voters showed Hillary Clinton pulling 47 percent of the vote to Barack Obama's 25 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was a distant third with 16 percent.
Both surveys had a 5 percent margin of error.At a pre-debate rally, Romney seemed confident he would take the Sunshine State. "If they are shooting at me, that means I'm the guy they are worried about, and with good reason," he said. "We are going to win Florida."