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Romney well-received at The Villages

By ADAM C. SMITH
Published February 17, 2007


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LADY LAKE - Maybe it seems too early for presidential campaigning in Florida, but Republican candidate Mitt Romney proved Friday night there's plenty of interest in him, and at least some skepticism about his Mormon faith.

Nearly 1,000 enthusiastic seniors turned out to see the former Massachusetts governor at The Villages, and many of the seniors lavished praise on him after hearing him.

But his warm welcome at the massive, heavily Republican retirement community was marred when one man attacked him for being a Mormon.

"You sir, you are a pretender. You do not know the Lord, you are a Mormon," the man shouted, drawing boos.

Romney responded calmly.

"Let me offer just a thought," he said. "One of the great things about this great land is we have people of different faiths and different persuasion, but we need to have a person of faith to lead this country."

Romney, 59, drew a standing ovation for the poised reaction to the attack. But the incident highlighted a potential obstacle to his efforts to win over social conservatives in the party.

Even as he, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback prepared to spend the weekend courting Christian conservatives at a broadcasters convention in Orlando, some social conservatives remain skeptical about a Mormon.

"It is an issue, and I think it's really good that it comes out early so he can confront it and deal with it," said state Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Orlando, an evangelical social conservative and strong Romney backer. "We don't want someone with identical beliefs, we're looking for someone who shares our values."

Romney, a businessman who gained fame turning around the troubled Salt Lake City winter Olympics, has been building a Florida campaign organization well before anyone else, and his town hall-style meeting in central Florida marked Florida's first public presidential campaign event of the election cycle.

"It's hard to imagine a Republican becoming president without winning Florida, so this is a critical state for me," said Romney, who has tapped some of Jeb Bush's closest advisers for his campaign.

Asked about creating a national catastrophic insurance fund - a big priority for many politicians in hurricane-prone Florida - Romney was noncommittal: "I can't imagine taking a position of that nature until it's been thoroughly studied and evaluated."

He spoke of the need to conserve energy and develop alternative supplies and sounded open to turning to areas near Florida for more oil. That's a potentially precarious stance in Florida.

"If we don't do it, Fidel Castro will," he said. "Of course we ought to be drilling in the continental shelf and" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He later declined to elaborate with specifics, but said he would support any energy exploration that was environmentally sensitive and not a threat to tourism.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 17, 2007, 02:21:20]


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