COLUMBIA -- The only Mormon in the South Carolina legislature is Alan Clemmons, a real estate lawyer from Myrtle Beach with a shiny bald head, natty suits, and a hyperactive Twitter feed.
Rep. Clemmons ardently supported Mitt Romney for president in 2008, raising money and rallying political support for the former Massachusetts governor. He is unlikely to do so again. Clemmons says he's distressed by the distance Romney has kept from the state since departing abruptly for Michigan just before the 2008 primary. And he finds the insinuation from some in Romney's circle that South Carolina has a religion problem particularly galling.
"He's making it tough on his South Carolina supporters to get behind him when he doesn't appear to be engaged in the South Carolina process," Clemmons told POLITICO. "I just don't buy the religious bigotry in South Carolina that seems to be part of that message."
Mormons make up about 2 percent of the U.S population, but they're closer to 30 percent of the Republican presidential primary field, where two clean-cut, handsome, moderate, millionaire former governors -- Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman -- appear to be seeking the nomination. The biographical similarities between the two men are good for an easy joke - one prominent South Carolina Republican referred to them as the "Doublemint Twins" - but they are taking sharply different approaches to this state, and to a question haunting their supporters: Will the Christian conservative backbone of the Republican electorate in South Carolina and other states support a Mormon? And as Romney seeks to keep a deliberate distance from the state, Huntsman is ostentatiously waving him in, and telling him the water's fine.
The mystery of South Carolina is not whether some conservative Christians are suspicious of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a fact easy to establish in polls and casual conversation. It's whether there are enough of them to matter, and whether they are voters who might have been in Romney's or Huntsman's camp otherwise. Recent political campaigns have seen endless attention devoted to questions of prejudice that did not stop Barack Obama being elected president.
"This year will be very much like my election," Gov. Nikki Haley told POLITICO. "It doesn't matter whether you're male or female or black or what your religion is."
Many in Romney's camp quietly disagree. His top aides, several allies said, view anti-Mormon views as a challenge in South Carolina, and it's widely thought to be part of the reason he's keeping the state at arm's length.
"People will have to reluctantly admit that the Mormon issue was a bigger problem last time around than people would want to acknowledge," said Warren Tompkins, Romney's key consultant here in 2008 who is not working for him this cycle. "A large part of [Gov. Mike] Huckabee's success came at the expense of Gov. Romney being Mormon."
"It was a problem for sure [in 2008]," said Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta-based Christian public relations man and longtime Romney supporter. "I don't think it kept him from being nominated but I think it was a problem for a lot of people."
DeMoss is more hopeful this time around.
"As long as the economy is a serious issue, I think he's much more attractive given his credentials, and his faith becomes less of a concern," he said.
Romney is expected here May 21 for the first time in more than 200 days, and has been playing an intricate waiting game in the two heavily evangelical early states, South Carolina and Iowa - a game of dampening expectations partly based on perceived resistance to his faith.
Now Huntsman appears determined to explode Romney's careful game. And Huntsman's key local consultant, Richard Quinn, has for weeks been delightedly suggesting that Romney's faith isn't a handicap but simply a crutch disguising other weaknesses.
"Maybe that's his excuse -- maybe he's going to say we're prejudiced against Mormons," Quinn said recently. "I think it's kind of a little bit of a slander about South Carolina that we're going to rule out people that aren't quite Anglo-Saxon Protestants."
Indeed, many local officials take real offense at the suggestion that Romney faces a special test.
"I have lived here for 45 yrs, and (Utah Rep.) Jason Chaffetz, (Arizona Rep.) Jeff Flake -- two practicing Mormons in Congress - would do extraordinarily well in the Upstate," said Rep. Trey Gowdy, who represents the conservative religious heartland of the Upstate where, he noted, Bob Jones III endorsed Mitt Romney last cycle.
"If Romney didn't do well in 2008, it has nothing to do with faith," he said. "I would look more at health care than faith."
To Clemmons, the Mormon legislator, who spoke admiringly of Huntsman after meeting him for the first time this week, the suggestion of religious prejudice is entirely a laughing matter, and he interrupted a reporter's interview with State House Speaker Bobby Harrell Friday evening with a joking suggestion: "What you should have asked Bobby is whether South Carolina will ever elect a loathsome Mormon."
Huntsman, in his visit to the state this weekend, demonstrated none of the agonized caution around the religious question that characterized Romney's approach, which culminated in a December 2007 address on religion that mentioned his own Mormon faith just once. Huntsman was expected, an aide said, to accompany Rep. Tim Scott Sunday morning to the Seacoast Church in Charleston, a non-denominational Protestant megachurch that may be more hospitable to him than the Baptist precincts in the Upstate, but remains far from Salt Lake City.
"Your complexion and your religion are secondary," Scott told POLITICO.
Indeed, this is a very different South Carolina than the one that Romney abandoned four years earlier. Here, as elsewhere, the party has been rejuvenated by the small-government conservatism of the tea party. And here, perhaps more than anywhere else, the Republican Party has enthusiastically embraced a leadership of unprecedented ethnic diversity. Indeed, Haley's victory was assured, local pollsters say, when a state legislator referred to her by an ethnic slur, "raghead," producing a wave of sympathy for Haley, who won an absolute majority in a three-way primary over two higher-ranking state figures.
Huntsman and Romney, though, will still have to reckon with some voters who believe strongly that they aren't Christian, and are therefore less inclined to vote for them. Some of them gathered on a street corner in Greenville Thursday night, overlooking the site of the evening's presidential debate, to pray for a wise, conservative and Christian president.
After the prayers ended, and before the debate began, preacher Franklin Raddish and Chris Lawton, a local tea party leader who organized a large tea party gathering at a nearby hotel, carefully considered whether two of the Republicans likely to seek the presidency would meet those criteria.
"I don't think Mormons are Christians - I don't think they see Jesus Christ as a deity," Raddish said.
"I care a little bit - I wouldn't make it a final decision if someone was a Mormon or not," Lawton said. He has, though, made his final decision on Mitt Romney.
"It doesn't have anything to do with his Mormonism - it's about flip-flopping," he said.
Ben Smith is a reporter for POLITICO. Byron Tau contributed to this report. The Post and Courier and POLITICO are sharing content for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.