DOVER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful John McCain brought his pitch to a New Hampshire church basement on Saturday, but religion was hardly on his agenda.
The Arizona Senator’s sole mention of the topic was in an aside to a woman’s question on immigration, when he assured her that while he opposed illegal immigration, he believed that, “We are all God’s children, we are all created in God’s image.”
Unlike the two other early-voting states of Iowa and South Carolina, in New Hampshire religion -- particularly the evangelical Christianity reflected in thousand-seat megachurches sprouting up in other parts of the country -- is not a major element in how voters select candidates in the state’s January 8 nominating primary.
“It’s really not a factor,” said Diane Ramus, a 50-year-old physician from Lee, New Hampshire, who turned out to see McCain speak in the basement of a Greek Orthodox church.
“I think it’s a personal thing for the candidates,” said Ramus. “Religion can be a very important personal decision, to provide strength to someone, and I see that as a positive. But I don’t see it as a necessary personal belief in a candidate.”
While Baptist minister and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is leading his Republican rivals in Iowa and South Carolina, the former Arkansas governor is trailing in New Hampshire. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, and McCain, an Episcopalian, are fighting for the lead in New Hampshire, where Huckabee is a distant fourth.
“Religious rhetoric actually doesn’t go down that well here,” said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. “New Hampshire is conservative fiscally, but it is moderate to liberal socially. It’s a libertarian state.”
Evangelical Christians make up a very small part of New Hampshire’s population. A 2000 study by the Association of Religion Data Archives at Pennsylvania State University found that the largest religious group in the state was the 431,259 Roman Catholics. The study found there were 95,586 mainline Protestants and some 30,131 evangelical Protestants.
“They are a different crop of Christians,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “They are much more prepared to accept someone from an unconventional religion.”
Some analysts have cited Romney’s Mormon religion as a liability in Iowa, which holds the first-in-the-nation caucus on January 3, and South Carolina, home to the first primary in the southeast on January 19. Huckabee in an interview earlier this month questioned a tenet of the religion.
Romney considered his religion, officially known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, enough of an issue to give an early December speech to assure voters that his church would not set the agenda for the United States.
But voters interviewed in New Hampshire said they did not consider Romney’s religion to be an issue in the election.
“I wouldn’t even think of it,” said Frank Robinson, 74, a resident of Bedford, New Hampshire. “I would hope that we had moved beyond that and can judge a man based on who he is.”
Others said they didn’t consider the differences between Mormonism, founded in the United States in the 19th century, and mainline Christianity to be of significance.
“I‘m a Christian, so that’s a positive to me,” said Ray Oban, a 54-year-old self-employed contractor from Nashua, when asked if Romney’s religion would influence his vote.
Several New Hampshire voters interviewed said they preferred that candidates not emphasize their religious views.
Ann Kauffman, 43, a pet groomer from Hudson, New Hampshire, and a Romney supporter, said she finds Huckabee’s emphasis on religion off-putting. He typically opens, and often closes, his campaign events with a prayer.
“It’s a little too much for me to hear,” Kauffman said.
Editing by Jackie Frank