Mitt Romney wins battle for evangelical vote with blessing from Billy Graham
Mitt Romney notched up a key victory in the battle for America's powerful evangelical vote after the nation's most famous preacher, Billy Graham, published a series of newspaper adverts offering what amounts to an endorsement of the Republican's challenger's bid for the White House.
The 93-year-old televangelist, who met and prayed with the former Massachusett Governor earlier this month, has also removed a page from his website which has for years described the Mormon Church, of which Mr Romney is a prominent member, as a "cult".
Mr Graham's support comes amid ongoing uncertainty about whether evangelical Christians, who normally form a key part of the Republican Party's electoral base, will vote for a Latter-Day Saint. About 10 per cent of the demographic is currently polling "undecided".
As a Southern Baptist, on paper Mr Graham regards Mormonism as "a false religion". However, he appears to have now taken the view that Mr Romney, a former lay bishop in the Mormon Church, represents the lesser of two evils at this election, because of his conservative stance on social issues.
"I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms," read Mr Graham's full-page advert in the Columbus Dispatch, one of the most influential newspapers in the swing state of Ohio. "The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues. Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn out hearts back toward God."
The advert, one of dozens that Mr Graham plans to publish, does not explicitly mention Barack Obama or Mr Romney, since that might endanger the tax-exempt status of his ministry.
However, the campaign's reference to gay marriage represents a clear rebuke to the President, who is progressive on the issue.
Mr Obama has also met Mr Graham, who has with Parkinson's disease and is these days largely confined to his home in the mountains of western North Carolina. But America's first black President has always been regarded with suspicion by the preacher's inner circle.
In February, Mr Graham's son and heir-apparent, Franklin Graham, 60, told a TV interviewer that he couldn't "categorically" say Mr Obama was not a Muslim "because Islam has gotten a free pass" under his leadership.