COLUMBIA -- Four years ago, GOP activist Dee Benedict lobbied hard to persuade South Carolina evangelicals to embrace Mitt Romney as a Republican presidential candidate, even if they were skeptical of his Mormon faith.
Today, four years into a Democratic presidential administration that she considers a disaster, Benedict has resisted the inclination to say "I told you so."
But she takes some pleasure in hearing fellow conservative Christians say they have reversed themselves and are supporting Romney in 2012.
"To my pleasant surprise, a great deal of evangelicals like him," Benedict, of Greer, said this week. "They are putting that issue aside. They should have four years ago, but on the other hand, here they are."
Evangelicals are likely to be a formidable force in South Carolina's Jan. 21 GOP primary, representing nearly 60 percent of likely voters, according to 2008 exit polling.
Still, Romney's religious faith remains an obstacle for some, as it did in the 2008 primary, when he came in fourth place.
"He's Mormon. That's hard for me as a Baptist," said Jane Morgan, a stay-at-home mom in Greenville who attended a Rick Santorum event Sunday. "I grew up being taught, you know, it's a cult ... I don't want a president that supports that mystical, cult-like thing."
Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church. So is Jon Huntsman, another GOP presidential hopeful.
While evangelicals and Mormons share many fundamental values, including the sanctity of marriage and the family, mainstream Christians see wide theological differences between Christianity and Mormonism, a faith rooted in American soil but marked by historical controversy.
Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith believed he was called by God in a vision to restore the ancient church in America, which had fallen away from Jesus Christ and his biblical teachings. According to church history, an angel led Smith in 1830 to gold plates hidden in a hill in New York which he translated as the Book of Mormon, a history of ancient Christians in North America.
Mainstream Christians view that story with skepticism along with other unorthodox beliefs, including additions to established sacred Christian scripture and the idea of continuing revelation. In the 1800s, concerns over the church's practice of polygamy also set the church apart. Smith was killed by a mob in Illinois on his way west, and Brigham Young eventually led Mormon followers to Utah, where many American Mormons still reside.
That theological divide worries the Rev. Brad Adkins, a Powdersville pastor who holds the one-year appointment as president of the 600,000-strong S.C. Baptist Convention.
While Adkins has stopped short of saying he would not vote for Romney, he said his faith will be paramount in determining who he will support.
"I think faith really is that critical," Adkins said this week. "If a person professes to have a belief system then certainly as they begin to pray and seek out which candidate they are going to vote for, that is going to be a major factor. Just like a person who is going to go vote whose only concern is the economy; they are going to look at the candidate who is making the greatest promises about the economy."
That could indicate he and other evangelicals will lean toward Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, solid pro-life conservatives who are professed Roman Catholics, or Rick Perry, who grew up in the United Methodist Church. Adkins has suggested it would be easier to forgive a fellow Christian like Gingrich, who has admitted to adultery, than embrace Romney because of his errant beliefs.
Adkins said he has urged his congregation to go before God and pray, "in making sure that the person that I'm going to vote for is a person who affirms what we believe, primary, and then what they offer and bring to the table on a political realm, secondary," Adkins said.
But Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta consultant and unpaid senior adviser to the Romney campaign, thinks more and more "values" voters will turn to Romney because he represents their life experience, if not their theological beliefs.
"I happen to think that this country would benefit from a strong dose of Mormon values regardless of what you think about their theology," DeMoss, a former aide to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, said Wednesday. "And I don't know many people who would argue with that point."
DeMoss believes evangelical skepticism toward Romney has diminished since the former Massachusetts governor emerged on the national political scene. And he said evangelicals rocked by misdeeds by their own leaders understand they cannot cast stones.
"I've known him (Romney) for more than five years and I don't ever worry about waking up to a newspaper headline that he has done something foolish."
FAITH VS PRAGMATISM
Pragmatism also fuels people like Benedict.
"It just reeks of self-indulgence" to attempt to maintain religious purity, when history has shown religious conservatives cannot "go it alone" to elect a president, she said.
"At the end of the day what they (Romney critics) are worried about is elevating the Mormon Church to that level," Benedict said. "They are worried that people will join the Mormon Church rather than the Christian church."
But she argues the American people already had that debate in 1960, when John Kennedy had to overcome bias against Roman Catholics. "There was no jump or spike in Catholicism when Kennedy was president," Benedict said.
For some evangelical voters, turning to Santorum may be a more palatable alternative. Judy Miller, a consignment store owner in Ridgeway, said she appreciates Santorum's "bold stance on Christianity" and is not bothered by the fact that he is a devout Catholic rather than a Protestant evangelical like herself.
"I'm voting for him to save my country," Miller said as she prepared refreshments for Santorum's Wednesday visit to the Fairfield County town. "Everything I've ever felt about America is under attack including our individual liberties given by God. Rick understands that and he's the one who will fight to fix it."
The next eight days will be critical for voters who have yet to make up their minds.
Jaye Morgan, pastor of an evangelical Presbyterian congregation in Irmo -- Church at Dutch Fork -- said he hasn't "landed the plane" yet but hopes to delve into voting records and personal views of the candidates before making a decision.
Romney's Mormonism is not a deal-breaker, but Morgan said he would like to understand how his Mormon faith informs his policy-making.
"I am not looking for perfection in anybody," Morgan said. "I'm looking for consistency. Does it fit with my personal Christian worldview, and which candidate comes closest to that."
Staff writers Adam Beam and Gina Smith contributed to this story.