(from the Orlando Sentinel)
GOP candidate Romney defends religion in Villages
Sentinel Staff Writer
February 17, 2007
THE VILLAGES -- Before former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could tout his conservative credentials Friday in this tri-county hotbed of Republicanism, he first had to defend his religious background as he begins the long road toward the 2008 GOP presidential nomination.
About 800 people packed Lake Miona Regional Recreation Center in this retirement community of 65,000. It was standing-room only.
But what got the crowd roaring wasn't a pitch for safe offshore oil drilling or health care. It was his religion. If he were to win the White House, Romney would become America's first Mormon president.
A man stood amid the crowd and called Romney "a pretender" who doesn't know "the Lord."
The crowd booed the man from the room, and Romney responded: "First of all, I believe in God."
Based on his experience so far -- just three days after announcing his candidacy -- Romney said most people don't take issue with his religion and are focused more on faith.
Resident Jerry Liebergen, 69, defended Romney: "They said the same thing about John Kennedy, because he was Catholic, that he'd never be president."
However, some political pundits have questioned whether fundamental Christians would take issue with his beliefs. Romney has changed his mind in the abortion debate -- he supported abortion rights until about two years ago, and now says he opposes abortion.
Romney said he supports an environmentally sensitive plan for offshore oil drilling that would not impact Florida tourism. He didn't go into specifics, but Floridians, liberal and conservative alike, agree that offshore drilling is unpopular in the state.
The candidate, who arrived from an earlier stop in Jacksonville, touched on issues ranging from immigration and health care to Iraq. He said the important issues for Floridians would continue to be the catastrophic storm fund, health care and education.
The Villages has become a must-stop for GOP candidates running for state and national offices. Gov. Charlie Crist visited the community -- which takes in parts of Lake, Sumter and Marion counties -- more than once during his successful campaign last year. President Bush became the first sitting president to visit The Villages when he stumped here in 2004, cheered on by about 15,000 residents.
Romney, a former venture capitalist and the son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002. He did not run for a second term last year. He joins a crowded field of Republicans seeking the presidential nomination, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Romney doesn't have the star power of Giuliani or McCain, but former allies of former Gov. Jeb Bush are in his corner, including former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and former House Speakers Allan Bense and John Thrasher.
"Gov. Bush said, 'Before you commit, I want you to meet Mitt Romney. He is the kind of guy you will like no matter what,' " Jennings said. "The governor was very candid about the fact that he really liked this guy."
She and a who's who list of Florida politicos are now in the Romney camp, an edge they hope will help their candidate overcome a lack of name recognition in a state that could have a larger role in the nomination.
"He's charismatic and has a good business background," said winter resident Everett Sherman, 65, of New Bedford, Mass.