ASHEVILLE After a week of moves to the middle on taxes, health care and abortion, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney returned to the South on Thursday to reassure conservatives and evangelical Christians that he’s a would-be president they can trust.
Romney began his Tar Heel trip – his fifth visit to the state this year – by making a pilgrimage to Montreat to meet and pray with 93-year-old evangelist Billy Graham. The Charlotte-born preacher’s willingness to sit down with Romney, pose for a picture with him and later issue a near-endorsement might also signal to evangelicals not to worry about the candidate’s Mormon faith.
If that weren’t enough for religious conservatives, the former Massachusetts governor was joined Thursday night at a campaign rally in downtown Asheville by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The one-time Baptist preacher is now among the stable of pundits on Fox News.
Romney, speaking to a crowd of several thousand supporters, started by mentioning his “chance of a lifetime” meeting with Graham and ended by urging North Carolina voters to help put him in a position to strengthen America’s values, families, economy and military.
But much of his 22-minute speech was a greatest-hits replay from last week’s debate with President Barack Obama, a performance that lifted Romney into the lead in some polls.
Repeat of debate lines get cheers
In must-win North Carolina – where the statewide unemployment rate is still high at 9.7 percent – Romney castigated Obama for spending his first year in office passing the Affordable Care Act instead of giving all his time to restoring the economy.
He charged that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class and cut the Pentagon budget. And he called for “serious answers” in the aftermath of the killing of a U.S ambassador by terrorists in Libya on the most recent anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
To the delight of his audience of supporters, the former CEO said it was time to fire those in the White House in order to make sure millions of others find work.
“We have a president and vice president who are just not up to the job,” Romney said. “So on Nov. 6, we’re going to send them home.”
A surprise participant at the rally: U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who will also stop in Charlotte on Friday and in Raleigh on Saturday to stump for Romney and urge Republicans to get in line when early voting starts next week in North Carolina.
On Thursday, Boehner stressed the economy: “We don’t need more job-crushing taxes … Thank God we have a candidate who understands our economy and can get people back to work.”
This week, Romney’s campaign began airing two TV ads in North Carolina that cast him as a leader whose top priority would be “putting people back to work in America.” Both ads are mostly a compilation of debate clips showing an aggressive Romney and a silent Obama on a split screen.
“U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” chanted the crowd at Thursday’s rally, which also featured N.C.-born Ronnie Millsap singing “America” and warm-up speakers invoking God and warning about a socialist in the White House.
Huckabee attacked the Obama administration for “hidden gems” in its health care plan that, he said, will let the government tell churches and people of faith that they have to pay for drugs that induce abortions.
Then, in a joking tone, Huckabee said things have become so dire that he, a Baptist preacher, was “begging you to vote for a guy who’s from Massachusetts and who’s a Mormon.”
In a statement released by Graham’s spokesman, the evangelist came as near to endorsing a presidential candidate as he has in years.
“I will turn 94 the day after the election, and I believe America is at a crossroads,” he said in the statement. “I hope millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.”
Graham spokesman Larry Ross later said the evangelist was not endorsing Romney.
“Throughout his public ministry spanning more than six decades, Mr. Graham has been careful to remain nonpartisan, though he has consistently been an advocate for taking a strong stand for biblical values,” Ross told the Observer.
Controversy over changing stands
Romney’s North Carolina stop came amid controversy over just where Romney stands on abortion and other issues.
In recent weeks, including during the debate, he has taken more moderate positions on everything from immigration to the Affordable Health Care Act, taxes and abortion.
He told the Des Moines Register this week that “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.”
A day later, he tried to short-circuit a flare-up among conservatives by telling reporters that “I think I’ve said time and again that I’m a pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president.”
If elected, he reaffirmed that one of his first moves would be to stop federal support of Planned Parenthood.
Democrat Obama and his campaign have used Romney’s seeming shifts on abortion as the latest example of his tendency to flip-flop for political gain – and as a way to reach out anew to female voters. Polls after the debate indicated Romney had made inroads in this voter group that Obama is counting on in November.
Former President Bill Clinton took up the attack this week, lampooning Romney as “Old moderate Mitt,” versus “severe conservative Mitt” of the GOP primaries. On ABC News, Obama charged Romney was “hiding positions he’s been campaigning on for a year and a half.”