MONTREAT, N.C. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney met Thursday with Rev. Billy Graham, and the aging evangelist pledged to do “all I can” to help the GOP nominee win the presidency.
Romney went to see Graham and his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, at the elderly evangelist’s mountaintop home in the mountains of western North Carolina.
“Prayer is the most helpful thing you can do for me,” Romney told the 93-year-old Graham.
The meeting came just days after Romney told a newspaper he would not pursue abortion-related legislation as president. Romney later insisted that he would be a “pro-life president.”
The Republican candidate said Thursday that Franklin Graham, also an evangelical leader, had been helping his presidential bid.
“What you’re planning, what your son has shown me, is going to be very, very helpful. And I appreciate that. It’s going to be terrific,” Romney said near the end of their 30-minute meeting. A handful of photographers and a camera crew witnessed the exchange, though no print reporters were allowed to see any part of the meeting.
Romney adviser Mark De Moss later said Romney and Franklin Graham had been discussing how the younger Graham is doing everything he can “to encourage churches to encourage their people to get out and vote.”
Romney’s embrace of Franklin Graham draws in an evangelical leader who has been criticized for his harsh views of Islam. The younger Graham has described Islam as evil and offensive and has said Muslims should know that Christ died for their sins.
In 2010, the Army withdrew an invitation for Franklin Graham to speak at a Pentagon prayer service because of what officials called inappropriate comments about Islam. At the time of the Pentagon flap, Graham said of Muslims: “I find what they teach and what they preach and what’s on the Internet – I find that to be offensive, too.”
Romney has faced some difficulty making inroads with evangelical voters, in part because some believe his Mormon faith means he is not a Christian. Earlier this year, the younger Graham expressed support for primary rival Rick Santorum, a Catholic. Pressed during an interview on MSNBC, Graham would not say that Romney was a Christian.
“He is a Mormon,” Franklin Graham said in February. “Most Christians would not recognize Mormonism ... but he would be a good president if he won the nomination.”
Franklin Graham also apologized for refusing, in the same interview, to say whether he believed President Barack Obama is a Christian.
Some evangelicals have also been skeptical because Romney once supported abortion rights, a critical issue with the Christian right. This week, Romney told The Des Moines Register editorial board that there wasn’t any abortion-related legislation he planned to pursue as president. A spokeswoman quickly clarified his remark, and on Wednesday, Romney told reporters that he is running as a “pro-life candidate and I’ll be a pro-life president.”
The Thursday meeting with the Grahams wasn’t placed on Romney’s official schedule, though the campaign had for days planned a rally in Asheville, N.C., the resort town near the Graham home.
The trek to see Graham – up a mountain on a narrow road marked by one hairpin turn after another – is a political ritual. John McCain visited in 2008 when he was the Republican nominee. Obama also tried to see him in 2008, when he was in Asheville preparing for the presidential debates, but Graham’s poor health prevented the meeting.
The president visited Graham at his home in 2010, when the Obamas went on vacation to Asheville. Obama and Graham have also spoken on the phone.
At the meeting, Romney and Graham discussed religious freedom and religious persecution, Romney adviser Mark DeMoss said. DeMoss, who sat in on the meeting, said they also discussed the growth of Graham’s ministry in China, Sudan and North Korea. Graham also mentioned Romney’s father, George, whom the elder Graham considered a friend.
Romney told Graham the story of how his father died. “He was on the treadmill one morning at age 88 and he’s jogging on the treadmill and his irregular heartbeat caused him to faint and there was no one there to revive him and so he passed away,” Romney said.
North Carolina voted narrowly for Obama in 2008.
Associated Press writers Rachel Zoll in New York and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.