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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."
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.
Earlier polling had given Romney a comfortable 10-point lead, Clemson political science professor and pollster Dave Woodard said. He's now predicting a win for Gingrich on Saturday.
Woodard said voters like what they've heard from Gingrich in this week's debates. Especially, he said, when Gingrich slammed the media Thursday before denying allegations from an ex-wife that he wanted an "open marriage" while having an affair.
In contrast, Woodard said, Romney has been "hemming and hawing" in the debates over releasing his income tax returns, after weeks of being hammered by his opponents over his business career. "The more he talks about it, the worse it sounds," Woodard said.
It's been a difficult week for Romney, who had hoped to effectively wrap up the Republican nomination on Saturday after winning both the Iowa GOP caucus vote and New Hampshire's primary earlier this month.
But his Iowa victory was taken away Thursday, when final results showed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ahead by 34 votes. That same day, Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich.
Romney's campaign is now downplaying the prospects of a strong showing Saturday, quietly suggesting he's had to push against a headwind created by voters here who won't accept his Mormon beliefs.
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.
Gingrich's surge, he said, is seen by South Carolina voters as "the way we can stop the inevitability of a Romney nomination."
Even if Romney loses South Carolina, Oldendick said he's still the favorite to win the GOP nomination because he has the resources to continue in the race.
"It's not that it's all going to fall apart if he doesn't win here. But it certainly makes it a much more difficult road that we would have said a week ago," Oldendick said. "I think this is a week he wishes he could have a 'do-over' on."
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