Chalk it up as another quirk of the 2008 GOP presidential field: The top-tier Repubican who entered the race as the supposed godsend for socially conservative voters in the Bible Belt who are dissatisfied with the other candidates is someone who does not attend church on a regular basis.
Asked about his religious beliefs during an appearance before about 500 Republicans in South Carolina yesterday, Fred Thompson said he attends church when he visits his mother in Tennessee but does not belong to a church or attend regularly at his home in McLean, Va., just outside Washington. The actor and former senator, who was baptized in the Church of Christ, said he gained his values from "sitting around the kitchen table" and said he did not plan to speak about his religious beliefs on the stump. "I know that I'm right with God and the people I love," he said, according to Bloomberg News Service. It's "just the way I am not to talk about some of these things."
On the Republican side, while general trends aren't as clear, the religious right -- defined in the poll as self- described religious fundamentalists, Christian conservatives and people who take the Bible literally -- is hurting Romney, 60, in South Carolina, where they wield more clout than in Iowa and New Hampshire.
``Despite Romney's best efforts, the Christian right is still looking elsewhere for a candidate,'' said Allan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University in Washington.
Among the religious right in South Carolina, Romney, a Mormon, trails former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 63, Arizona Senator John McCain, 71, and Thompson, a former Tennessee senator who announced his candidacy last week. Thompson, 65, leads with 31 percent, followed by Giuliani with 20 percent, McCain with 15 percent and Romney with 8 percent.
Romney also is behind those candidates within South Carolina's broader pool of Republican voters.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who is leading the Republican field overall in Iowa and New Hampshire, generally fares better among upper-income and elderly voters, the poll shows. In Iowa, Romney is running about even with Giuliani among voters belonging to the religious right and has a huge lead among Republicans who aren't in that group. The religious right isn't a factor in New Hampshire.
``I see Mormonism as a cult, instead of a branch of Christianity,'' said Valarie Harper, 56, who works part-time in a flower shop in West Columbia, South Carolina, and described herself as a Christian conservative.
Older and younger voters in New Hampshire are evenly split between Romney and Giuliani: thirty-four percent of respondents 65 and older favor Romney and 37 percent between the ages of 18 and 44 support Giuliani.