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Romney's faith pitch recorded behind closed doors

  • Story Highlights
  • CNN obtained audio from private meeting of Bob Jones University community
  • Evangelical Christian constituency may be crucial to Mitt Romney's presidential bid
  • South Carolina school's chancellor, Bob Jones III, has endorsed Romney
  • Alumnus provided audio, expressed frustration at school leaders' endorsements
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By Peter Hamby
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COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney put aside questions about his Mormon faith and focused instead on what he described as his shared values with Christians, according to an audio recording of an invitation-only meeting that CNN obtained.

Mitt Romney said he gets "good support from evangelical Christian leadership around the country."

Romney often has spoken about his efforts to allay the fears of evangelical Christians, but the recording of the event -- held Tuesday with students, faculty and alumni of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University -- provides a rare glimpse into the Republican's private efforts to court the constituency many see as crucial to his 2008 presidential bid.

"I get good support from evangelical Christian leadership around the country, you know, despite a difference in religion," Romney told the audience of evangelicals at the Greenville Hilton. Go inside the invitation-only meeting »

"I think it was Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention who said we're not electing a pastor in chief, and so I appreciate that support and just you remember that when you go to vote," he said with a laugh.

CNN received the recording, which was made without the knowledge of the Romney campaign or those from Bob Jones, from an alumnus of the fundamentalist Christian school who was invited to the private meeting. The alumnus requested anonymity because he did not want to anger the university community. Video Watch Romney address religion »

"We would love to have you join us for this event as Governor Romney outlines his views as a social conservative," said an e-mail invitation that the alumnus also provided to CNN.

The e-mail described the gathering as "designed to specifically reach out to members of the Bob Jones University family."

The alumnus said he was frustrated at the recent endorsements of Romney by the school's chancellor, Bob Jones III, and Robert Taylor, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in part because of the candidate's past support of abortion rights.

He also said he wanted to make clear that not all members of the university community supported Romney despite high-profile endorsements from the school's leadership.

Jones and Taylor endorsed Romney in mid-October -- a surprise since Jones had once called Mormonism and Catholicism "cults which call themselves Christian." The endorsements were seen as a boost to Romney's efforts to sway conservative Christians skeptical about his faith.

The Bob Jones officials may not be as well-known nationally as televangelist Pat Robertson, who this week endorsed former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, but they are influential among the evangelical Christians who make up a significant portion of GOP primary voters in South Carolina.

Romney spoke for about 10 minutes before taking questions. He was asked about Iraq, taxes, the auto industry and Darfur. Only once was there a question about his religion.

A member of the audience wanted to know about his relationship with Jones. "We have different views on religion," Romney said.

"I've met with Dr. Jones a couple of times. We've had good, long discussions. And we've talked, as you might imagine, we don't talk about doctrines of churches, all right? Because he says, 'Look, your church is wrong,' and I say 'Fine.' "

Romney told the audience he had assured Jones in private meetings that they do "agree on the critical nature of what the country faces right now" and that he can build and fund the sort of campaign organization needed to win.

Romney asked the crowd to focus on his ability to build a strong enough organization to defeat the Democratic nominee, whom he predicted would be Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"I think Hillary will get about 47, 48, maybe 49.9 percent, but she won't get over 50 percent. I just don't think it will happen," Romney said. "But I do represent one of the candidates who is fighting for the values I think that build upon the house that Reagan built, and that will bring together the coalition that will allow us to beat Hillary or Barack [Obama] or John Edwards."

Most of Romney's remarks closely resembled those of his usual stump speech, focusing on free trade, lower taxes and strong national security. But the candidate took time to emphasize family values and promoted his new plan to require "so-called family planning clinics" that receive federal funds to offer adoption advice to pregnant women.

Perhaps more illuminating than Romney's on-message speech to the crowd was his introduction by Taylor, the college dean and a top official at Bob Jones.

Taylor tried to convince the audience that they should support Romney despite his religion. He suggested Romney's faith is preventing many fellow evangelicals from supporting the former Massachusetts governor.

"I think there's a lot of us evangelicals that have kind of held back a little," Taylor said. "They realize he's the guy they would like to support, but they're kind of looking left and right and seeing, 'OK who has the courage to step out and support him and if somebody else does maybe I will, too.'

"So you can probably be the encouragement to that neighbor or that other church member that's a little concerned."

He assured the crowd that backing Romney is not an endorsement of Mormonism.

"I don't think there has ever been a time when there has been probably a bigger discussion of the actual differences there are in Gov. Romney's religion, Mormonism and the Christian religion," Taylor said.

"And nobody is trying to rub out that line, so that's an encouragement. If that were the case, I could see where we might have a problem but that's not the case."

Reached by phone at his office Friday, Taylor confirmed the authenticity of the recording but denied the suggestion that members of the Bob Jones community are frustrated with school leaders for endorsing Romney.

"Everybody has a right to endorse a candidate, so I don't think there is that kind of feeling at all," he said, adding that after this week's private meeting with Romney, "there were people there who were still making up their minds."


The Romney campaign said it's impossible to expect to win over every evangelical voter.

"You appreciate the support you receive, and you wish those that don't support you the best of luck. We'd love to win every vote in this race, but we know that's not possible," said Will Holley, Romney's South Carolina communications director. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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