By Margot Roosevelt
LYNCHBURG, Virginia (Reuters) - Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.
So in this year's presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.
"Romney's going to help the upper class," said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. "He doesn't know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house."
She'll vote for Obama, she said: "At least he wasn't brought up filthy rich."
White lower- and middle-income voters such as Harris are wild cards in this vituperative presidential campaign. With only a sliver of the electorate in play nationwide, they could be a deciding factor in two southern swing states, Virginia and North Carolina.
Reuters/Ipsos polling data compiled over the past several months shows that, across the Bible Belt, 38 percent of these voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is "very wealthy" than one who isn't. This is well above the 20 percent who said they would be less likely to vote for an African-American.
In Lynchburg, many haven't forgotten Romney's casual offer to bet Texas Governor Rick Perry $10,000 or his mention of his wife's "couple of Cadillacs." Virginia airwaves are saturated with Democratic ads hammering Romney's Cayman Islands investments and his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns.
At the Democratic convention last week, Obama mocked the GOP's "tax breaks for millionaires" as "the same prescription they've had for the last 30 years."
A former private equity executive with a net worth of some $250 million, Romney vehemently disputes insinuations that he has paid less taxes than required by law. He calls the attacks an effort "to divert attention from the fact that the president has been a failure when it comes to reigniting the American economy."
The GOP nominee's lucrative business career, which he touts far more than his record as governor of Massachusetts, does resonate with many Southern conservatives. "I don't like to see the wealthy punished for their success," said Cory Beaver, 26, as he waited on customers at a Lynchburg restaurant. "Obama leans toward socialism."
Romney's opposition to gay marriage and his commitment to reversing the Supreme Court's decision granting women the right to abortion also gain him more support in the Bible Belt than in other regions of the country.
WHERE OLD AND NEW SOUTH COLLIDE
Focusing on 11 states from Virginia and North Carolina to Texas and Oklahoma, the Reuters/Ipsos polling project canvassed 8,690 people in households with incomes under $55,000 a year -- just above the U.S. median.
Non-Hispanic whites in this bracket have skewed Republican for more than three decades, and they prefer the GOP nominee to Obama by 46 percent to 29 percent. However, as Romney launches a post-convention ad blitz, those numbers could signal trouble for his campaign. Strategists in both parties figure that to offset the president's expected landslide among an expanding electorate of blacks and Hispanics -- Obama won 80 percent of minority votes in 2008 -- Romney must garner more than 60 percent of the white vote overall.
In Virginia, polls show the candidates virtually tied. The state's 5.9 percent unemployment rate, well below the 8.1 percent national average, works in Obama's favor. Overall, 35 percent of the electorate is black, Hispanic or Asian.
Large swaths of northern Virginia, which includes Washington, D.C. suburbs, and the Tidewater region, with its heavy military presence, see the federal government as more friend than enemy.
In Lynchburg, a city of 76,000 in south central Virginia, Old and New South collide as downtown's Victorian gingerbread homes yield to high-tech suburban factories. On Main Street, a pawnbroker displays racks of shotguns across from a marble-and-stainless steel bakery offering creme brulée cupcakes. Several times a day, Appalachian coal trains, more than 100 cars long, wind through town.
The city is best known as headquarters of an evangelical empire: Thomas Road Baptist Church, with 25,000 members, founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, and its fast-growing offshoot, Liberty University.
At Liberty's May commencement, Romney, a Mormon, sought to stake out common ground with fundamentalist Christians. Without directly mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as the Mormon church is formally known, he told the crowd of 34,000: "People of different faiths, like yours and mine ... can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview."
According to Reuters/Ipsos polling data, however, 35 percent of voters overall, and the same proportion of lower- and middle-income white Bible Belt voters, say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is Mormon.
Many evangelicals who would normally vote Republican say they view Mormonism as a cult.
Several of those interviewed in Lynchburg were devotees of the TV series "Big Love" and "Sister Wives," about polygamous Mormon families. They were unaware that the Mormon Church long ago renounced polygamy.
"Mormons don't believe like we believe," said Dianna McCullough, a retired factory worker, as she tossed salad in a Tree of Life Ministries soup kitchen. "Like the wives -- Romney's probably got more than one."
Still, she is undecided in the election. "The gay marriage thing hurts Obama," she said. "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."
The president has said he supports gay marriage, whereas Romney, in his speech at Liberty, drew his biggest applause with the line, "Marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman."
Four years ago, almost a quarter of voters identified themselves as white Protestant evangelicals in exit polls. Obama won only a quarter of them. This year, many passionately want to defeat him.
In a survey conducted this summer by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life, almost a third of Republicans said they believe Obama is Muslim, compared with 16 percent of independents and 8 percent of Democrats. The falsehood is a frequent theme of conservative talk radio.
Still, the challenge for the GOP is to ensure that white evangelicals, most of whom voted for other candidates in the primary, are sufficiently enthusiastic about Romney to make it to the polls.
On a humid evening at the Thomas Road church, the weekly "Hands Stitching 4 Jesus" group was crocheting teddy bears for children in Mexico. Middle-school teacher Stephanie Parrish, 27, was setting up a slide show from her recent mission to Guatemala with Campus Crusade for Christ.
Her thoughts on the presidential election?
"Abortion and gay marriage -- where they stand on morality, that's big for me," she said.
In 2008, Parrish was a fan of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who was defeated in the GOP primary. She counts him as a Facebook friend. She has yet to "friend" Romney, although she plans to vote for him.
"I'm not extremely excited," she confessed. "I'd prefer not to have a Mormon."
Nonetheless, she added, "Romney seems to align himself with conservative values."
Among low- and middle-income white Bible Belt voters, 21 percent in the Reuters/Ipsos polling data said they are uncertain they will vote in the presidential election. That's not much more than the 17 percent of other respondents who were uncertain. But in a group that leans Republican, it could be enough to hurt Romney.
Democratic TV spots in Virginia and other battleground states portray Romney as outsourcing jobs to China and Mexico when he was chief executive officer of Bain Capital -- a charge he calls "deceptive and dishonest."
The GOP nominee's attacks on "big government" as "hostile and "remote" appeal more strongly to white low- and median-income Southerners than to the nation as a whole. The deep cuts in the federal government's domestic program pushed by his vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, reinforce the message.
In the Reuters/Ipsos poll, these Bible Belt voters blame Washington more than Wall Street for the recent recession by a margin of 30 points. Overall, Americans blame Washington, too, but by only six points.
"Other than the military, everything that's government-controlled is screwed up," said William Clarkson, a retired postman who was rooting for the Lynchburg Hillcats, the city's minor league baseball team, on a sweltering afternoon.
"Romney took a lot of businesses that were failing and turned them around," he said, adding: "I don't see big business as evil. Obama is using class warfare with his ads about Romney wanting to give tax breaks to millionaires."
Obama's plan is to extend Bush-era tax cuts for families with incomes under $250,000 a year, while Romney and congressional Republicans support an across-the-board extension.
According to the Reuters/Ipsos data, 35 percent of the white Southern group saw Romney as having a "better approach" to taxes, while 25 percent thought Obama does.
Paradoxically, the same group agreed by more than 4 to 1 with the statement: "The wealthiest Americans should pay higher taxes," which is Obama's campaign theme.
The apparent contradiction in public attitudes about tax policy mirrors widespread confusion over the Affordable Healthcare Act, which Romney has promised to repeal.
Overall, 54 percent of Americans -- and a decisive 69 percent of white low- and median-income Southerners -- opposed Obamacare, according to the Reuters/Ipsos data. But when asked about specific parts of the law, the results largely favored the president.
Both groups opposed the provision that would require them to buy health insurance. However, by more than 2 to 1, both supported making businesses with more than 50 employees offer insurance and forcing insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.
Almost two-thirds of both groups supported a central element of Obamacare: extending Medicaid -- the federal-state program that covers healthcare for the poor -- to families earning less than $30,000 a year. Romney and Ryan seek to cut the growth of Medicaid by capping federal contributions and shifting responsibility to the states.
If Obama has fed class resentment with attacks on Romney's taxes and his mixed record at Bain Capital, the GOP is tapping into a different strain of white middle-class rancor -- one directed toward low-income recipients of government aid.
A Romney ad asserts that "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you a welfare check." Independent fact-checkers say the ad distorts the administration's plan to give states more flexibility on work rules -- a request that came from Republican governors.
In Lynchburg, however, it resonates with some white conservatives. At the Modern Barber Shop on Main Street, where the Ten Commandments are displayed in the window, a group of retirees chatted about the election on a recent morning.
"I don't believe in free handouts," said Robert McCanna, a former accountant. "Obama is pitting blacks against whites."
Retired truck driver Lyle Campbell interjected, "If I was black, I would get anything I want."
Just up the street, however, Sheryl Harris, the senior center activities director, sees the election through the lens of class, not race. "Romney didn't get to the top of the pile by being a nice guy," she said. "To make the money he makes you have to step on a lot of people ... Democrats are more interested in helping the lower and middle classes."
(Editing by Lee Aitken and Douglas Royalty)