SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Something about Mitt Romney just isn't right with Bill Burdette. And something about Mike Huckabee is.
"Romney's from Utah and he's Mormon," said the 41-year-old software engineer from Iva, S.C. "Huckabee's from the South and he's Baptist."
Understand, Burdette said, he's not choosing his candidate based on religion, but Huckabee, a Baptist minister who was the governor of Arkansas for 10 and a half years, is someone he's comfortable with.
That's Romney's problem throughout this crucial early-voting state, where a win Jan. 19 by the former Massachusetts governor would give him a huge boost in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination.
An estimated 63 percent of Republican primary voters in South Carolina are "born again" or evangelical Christians, so a Romney win would be hailed as dramatic proof that his Mormon faith wasn't a big factor in voter judgments.
Except that evidence from polls and visits throughout the state shows that it is.
"Evangelicals like to find someone who shares their faith and their values. Usually you find one or the other; in Huckabee you find both," explained the Rev. Hal Lane, the pastor of West Side Baptist Church in Greenwood.
Romney knows he has a problem making himself acceptable to voters in a state where about 725,000 people are Baptists, like Burdette. That's a big reason that the candidate made a highly publicized speech Dec. 6 in Texas to explain the relationship of his faith to his values and politics.
In those remarks, Romney addressed what many think is on the minds of many voters: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."
He also tried to clear up any theological misconceptions, saying, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."
Some South Carolina politicians and voters hailed the speech as a turning point.
State Rep. Bob Leach, a Romney backer from Greenville, said the address "clarified things" and all but stopped the talk about the Mormon religion. "It brought things back to normal," Leach said.
But after Romney spoke Tuesday morning in Spartanburg _deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, where he didn't mention religion — supporters said it was still a factor, though not so much for them, mind you.
"It's bizarre what a big deal is being made of it," said Terry Deye, a fast-food chain manager from Travelers Rest. "I don't care. What's important to me is where Romney stands on family and good moral values."
Larry McMakin, a Spartanburg carpenter, agreed.
"Religion matters to some in this election," he said. "People probably don't understand the Mormon faith. I haven't studied it much myself."
But McMakin, a Baptist, said it was more important that Romney "is a leader. He has experience."
DuBose Kapeluck, assistant professor of political science at The Citadel, called religion the silent issue.
"It's very hard to say what people really think," he said. "My gut feeling is that most evangelicals just don't believe Mormonism is Christianity."
As a result, he said, "there's some speculation that support for Romney may be overstated."
People here cite several reasons that Romney's speech didn't clear up the "Mormon issue," among them that it didn't go far enough in explaining Mormonism to skeptics, and, most of all, the rise of Huckabee.
"He really didn't deal with Mormonism or our questions," said Joe Mack, the director of public policy at the South Carolina Baptist Convention.
"We don't have the same belief in regard to the character of Jesus Christ as I understand he does," Mack said, "and we just don't view the Mormon religion as being the same kind of Christianity we have."
As a result, he said, "I don't know that it changed any South Carolina Baptist minds."
Romney's biggest religious hurdle appears to be the appeal of Huckabee, who once led congregations in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, served as the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and exudes a cool confidence that appeals to likeminded churchgoers.
Or as Lane put it, "identification."
Jan Glopp, a retired motel owner from West Columbia, seconded that. "He has more values than the rest of them," Glopp said, "and he's conservative and a Christian."
A lot of people say that while religion isn't a deciding factor for them, they appreciate how it informs Huckabee's views.
"He just seems so decent," said Julie Glas, a retired juvenile probation officer from Fripp Island.
State Rep. Rex Rice of Easley felt that, too. He's spoken with both men, and finds "I communicate better with Huckabee than with Romney." And though he says religion isn't a factor in deciding to back Huckabee, he concedes that being a minister "is a great asset."
That's kind of what makes Burdette, the software engineer, lean toward Huckabee.
He is a bit concerned about "whether you can be a preacher and a president," since this is a country where church and state are officially separate. At the same time, Burdette said, Huckabee speaks his language: conservative values with a Southern accent, views steeled by a profound religious faith. Like him.
As Burdette put it, chuckling, "he's in the clique."