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Religious Ohioans warm to Romney

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Tribune-Review
The Rev. Bradley Call, 61, of Saint Clairsville, Ohio, says he tries to keep politics out of his sermons at United Methodist Church, but has let slip that he supports Obamacare. “We have a moral responsibility to care for one another, even if it sometimes is costly or inconvenient to do,” he said. “If you don’t think that we should be taking care of the poor, the destitute, you’re missing a pretty important part of what the Bible says. But I don’t think I changed too many people’s minds.” Call has been at the church since 2005. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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A crowd gathers outside of the Saint Clairsville, OH courthouse steps for a Tea Party 'God and Country Rally' on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. Many attendees hold signs reading 'Stop the War on Coal: Fire Obama'. Saint Clairsville is the county seat for Belmont County, which has voted democratic in presidential elections for the past 40 years. This year, however, the region is trending Republican, and Romney’s staff believe they’re going to win here. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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A house is reflected in a side-view mirror as a pro-Obama sign stands in the house's yard in Saint Clairsville, OH on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. St. Clairsville, in Belmont County, has voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in every election for 40 years. This year, however, the region is trending Republican, and Romney’s staff believe they’re going to win here. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Dave Humphreys, of Saint Clairsville, OH sings the National Anthem at the beginning of a Tea Party 'God and Country Rally' outside of the Saint Clairsville courthouse on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. Humphreys is the owner of Lion Industries, which makes consumable products for the coal industry. 'I have 50 families that depend on us for a living,' said Humphreys, who says he will be voting for Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential elections. 'We're suffering this year because coal production is down quite a bit.' He believes Obama doesn't know how to get industries going. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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Kelly Molyneaux, of Bridgeport, OH listens with John Stanicar, visiting from Pittsburgh, outside of the Saint Clairsville, OH courthouse steps during a Tea Party 'God and Country Rally' on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. St. Clairsville, in Belmont County, has voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in every election for 40 years. This year, however, the region is trending Republican, and Romney’s staff believe they’re going to win here. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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John Puch, left, 73, of Dillonvale, OH and Wes Miller, 62, of Saint Clairsville, OH unveil a 'One Nation Under God' sign on the steps of the Saint Clairsville courthouse during a Tea Party 'God and Country Rally' on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. Alongside Christian religious issues, a big topic of discussion at the rally was how Obama has regulated the energy industry since taking office. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
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George Hails, 61, of Saint Clairsville, OH poses for a portrait with his homemade 'Save the USA, Fire Obama' sign in his front yard on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. Hails, who is employed at a coke plant in Follonsbee, WV, says he has seen the coal industry take a hit since Obama created new environmental regulation for the industry. 'I'm all for a clean environment, but to what extreme do you go?' said Hails. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio — The Rev. Homer Harden says he never mixes politics and the pulpit. This election cycle won't be any different.

“Billy Graham was one of my heroes, and he never told people who to vote for,” said Harden, pastor of First Presbyterian Church. “He encouraged people to vote, to educate themselves about the candidates and issues, but he wouldn't push one candidate or the other. I thought that was good advice.”

Yet Harden and his 167 church members will seek higher guidance before voting Nov. 6 for either President Obama or Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

“Before they get in that booth, they're going to stop and say a little prayer,” Harden said.

In this crucial swing state, many look to the revived auto industry or to Hamilton County's role as a bellwether, or to how the candidates' messages play with blue-collar workers in the state's northeast manufacturing hub.

Few people talk about the religious vote in places such as St. Clairsville in Belmont County, across the Ohio River from West Virginia.

Traditionally a Democratic stronghold, the county might vote for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in 40 years, analysts and residents say.

“That area is definitely trending Republican,” said Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University. “I think Obama is seen as sort of a radical, and that could be problematic with culturally conservative voters. They might be in the habit of voting Democrat, but they're more like Archie Bunker voters. He was in a union, but he had no use for those on the far left. Maybe that's what's going on in Belmont County.”

Romney's Mormon faith, which many people acknowledge they do not fully understand, appears to be a non-factor among supporters.

Jeff Vrotto, 39, who runs a small woodworking business, said “the Book of Mormon is kind of out there,” but not so far out that he'd vote for Obama.

“Obama hasn't done anything for us in four years,” Vrotto said. “I'm not voting for him, and I'm a Democrat. Taxes are too high under him. Romney has to win and repeal Obamacare.”

Sheila Smith, 59, who owns a home care agency, is another registered Democrat who will vote for Romney, albeit with reservations.

She backed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and said she prefers his strict conservatism. Smith staunchly opposes abortion and gay marriage, and does not understand churchgoers who support either.

“Yes, there are religious people who will vote for Obama. I don't know if it's because they think it's OK to kill babies and allow gays and lesbians to get married, which is blatantly wrong,” Smith said. “There are people out there who go to church but basically do anything they want. Then there are people who walk the walk.

“We are Bible-believing Christians in this area, and we are very concerned about the Democratic push towards liberalism.”

Smith believes the Mormon faith is “a debauched religion,” but she considers Obama the most damaging president in American history.

“He tells people what they want to hear while sliding the knife into their backs,” she said. “He wants a complete transformation of the country from a republic over to Marxism. Bible-believing Christians understand this.

“I have children and grandchildren, and I'm scared to death for them.”

She is not alone.

Alisa Turnewitsch, like others here, erected a sign in her yard reading: “Stop the War on Coal. Fire Obama.”

Though it accurately expresses her disdain for the president, it's “not good enough,” she said. “I've been looking on eBay for a sticker that says, ‘America' so I can place it over the ‘coal' part because Obama's done much more damage than that. He's waging a war on America, not just coal.”

Turnewitsch thinks Obama is killing the American dream.

“He's taking away people's initiative. He wants to create sponges instead of hard-working Americans. He's transforming the country, and it's scary.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Bill Bryant, whose pro-Obama yard is a rarity in St. Clairsville.

“I wonder if Obama goes over people's heads,” said Bryant, 75. “That worries me. It's going to be close. I think we've got a horse race.”

After the first presidential debate, which most pundits said Romney won, Bryant thought Obama came off as the better candidate.

“He was cool and collected. He was presidential,” he said. “But the media punditry wanted blood, and they didn't get blood.”

Bryant said a strong local Tea Party is driving the anti-Obama sentiment, and Belmont County Tea Party head Kelly Conway agrees. The group is responsible for the many “Fire Obama” signs.

“We haven't gone out to one household — no, no, no. They come to us asking for the sign,” he said.

Romney's religion does not matter, Conway said.

“What I believe, I believe very strongly. But I also believe we have freedom of religion, and that covers Mitt Romney,” he said. “His values are phenomenal; he's got a great family. I find no fault with Mitt Romney, and I think he'll be a great president.”

Many Obama critics believe the president is Muslim — offering as evidence a June 2009 speech in Cairo in which he sought “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and an April 2009 greeting at the G-20 summit in London when Obama bowed before the king of Saudi Arabia.

“It was not a mistake,” Smith said. “He was being submissive.”

Like Pastor Harden, the Rev. Brad Call of Thoburn United Methodist Church avoids discussing divisive politics during services. He said he sometimes fails, noting some sermons revealed his support of Obama's health reform law.

“We have a moral responsibility to care for one another, even if it sometimes is costly or inconvenient to do,” Call said. “If you don't think that we should be taking care of the poor, the destitute, you're missing a pretty important part of what the Bible says. But I don't think I changed too many people's minds.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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