ANDERSON, S.C. -- Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney sought to dispel doubts about his opposition to abortion during a visit Friday with Republicans in the heart of South Carolina's Christian conservative territory.
"I am firmly pro-life," the former Massachusetts governor told about 100 Republicans at a restaurant here, with his wife, Ann, by his side. "I was always for life."
When pressed about his shift from supporting abortion rights, Romney said he knew he could do nothing to change the law while governor. "Every act I've taken as governor has been in favor of life," he said.
Romney has said he once supported abortion rights because a relative died in a botched abortion. The view changed more than two years ago after he took a hard look at the destruction of embryos used for stem cell research -- something that "cheapened the value of human life," he has said.
Abortion is a key issue among the state's conservatives, who can influence the first Southern primary in the nation next year. Candidates who trek through South Carolina often are questioned whether they'll appoint federal judges and Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion.
Dick White, a Christian conservative whose wife used to lead the county branch of the Christian Coalition, said Romney simply needs to stick to his guns. He and others dismissed questions raised by some conservatives about whether Romney's Mormon faith adheres to fundamental Christian values.
"If he follows through with his conservative philosophies, he won't have a problem," White said. "I don't think the issue is what church he belongs to. It's where he stands on conservative issues."
The head of the Anderson County Republican Party said he believes Romney will do better than GOP candidates such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has moderate stances on issues such as abortion and gay rights. "That's not going to please people here," said county party chairman Rick Adkins.
In November, a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage received 86 percent of the vote in Anderson County, and Romney on Friday told the crowd he favored such actions.
He later told reporters that, while he favors states being able to define marriage as being between a man and a woman, he wouldn't tell them what to do when it comes to domestic partner benefits.
"I don't have a problem with gay people being able to visit one another in the hospital," he said.