"I'm proud to have the respect of people and the support of people who don't agree with my faith, but agree that I'm the right person to be president," the former Massachusetts governor said while campaigning here. "And I'm not running for preacher; I'm running for president."
In the 2000 election, George W. Bush similarly basked in the reputation of Bob Jones University, a Greenville, S.C., school named for Jones's grandfather that is influential with some conservative Christians. Less than a month after a visit to the school, Bush wound up apologizing to Roman Catholic leaders for "causing needless offense."
The university teaches its students that Catholicism, like Mormonism, is a cult. At the time, it also had a policy banning interracial dating between its students. It rescinded the policy after publicity generated by Bush's visit.
The university continues a policy of banning alumni it says are "militant" homosexuals from its campus, school spokesman Jonathan Patie said Monday during an interview with The Associated Press.
Bob Jones III, the university's chancellor, said in his endorsement of Romney last week, "As a Christian, I am completely opposed to the doctrines of Mormonism." He also labeled the Mormon church an "erroneous faith," and included it in with Catholicism as a non-Christian "cult."
Nonetheless, Jones said he was backing Romney because he believes the GOP presidential contender embraces conservative values.
Romney's campaign has been touting the endorsement to skeptical evangelicals. Such support could prove critical in the Upstate area of South Carolina, the state slated to hold the third presidential primary.
Romney, bidding to become the first Mormon president, has said he understands questions about his faith, but he has also been protective of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which he once served as a bishop and which he continues to back financially.
Asked Thursday how he could accept Jones's criticism of such a central facet of his life, Romney said: "Each church thinks their church is the best one or they wouldn't be going to it. ... The great thing about America is, we have our differences in viewpoint, but they don't lead to our discrimination against people based on their faith, or certainly lead to the kinds of violence we see in other places in the world."
Later, in comments certain to appeal to social conservatives, Romney jabbed at the "family values" of Democratic front-runnerand her husband by harkening back to former President Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
In response to a guest at a house party in Hooksett, N.H., who asked him how he would instill family values as president, Romney said: "One of the ways that you help instill, if you will, family values is by having a White House be a place that demonstrates family values. And, you know, I think during the last Clinton presidency, the White House did not demonstrate that in a way that was helpful to our nation's character."
Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Clinton, fired back: "Hillary Clinton needs no lessons on character from a man who switches his positions on a daily basis."