- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2011

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced Thursday that he will once again seek the Republican presidential nomination, but four years after his first bid, analysts say he will once again face the same unique hurdle: his Mormon religion.

This time, though, he could have company from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who also is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and has spent the past few weeks testing the waters for a bid.

Mr. Romney steered clear of his religion when he kicked off his campaign in New Hampshire, but that could change this weekend when he and Mr. Huntsman travel to Washington, where they are scheduled to speak at the Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC) conference — an event that could provide an early snapshot of where they stand with religious conservatives.

Ben Crosby, an Iowa State University professor who has studied how Mr. Romney handled his faith during the 2008 campaign, told The Washington Times that Mr. Romney’s Mormon roots “absolutely” put him at odds with much of the evangelical Christian community, which plays a key role in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and can make or break a candidate in the South Carolina Republican primary.

“Mormonism represents for evangelical conservatives a breaking of a particular order, a breaking of tradition, a breaking with convention,” Mr. Crosby said, noting how Mr. Romney sank large sums of time and money into the 2008 Iowa caucuses only to lose to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher.

“That’s probably why Romney is not putting a big investment in Iowa this time because I think he knows at the ground level that those prejudices don’t change after four years,” he said. “I think Romney can win the nomination, but he will have to do it by jumping over major hurdles that other people simply wouldn’t have to jump over.”

John G. Geer, chairman of Vanderbilt University’s political science department, told The Times that his studies show that while there has been a steep decline in prejudice against many groups in the United States, that hasn’t been the case with Mormons, Muslims or atheists.

“This would drop down once people realize that a lot of the stereotypes out there are not founded,” Mr. Geer said. “But it’s a puzzle because we have this big decline in bias in a lot of ways — bias against women is down, as well as bias against Latinos and African-Americans, but the bias against Mormons is still there.”

He pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that shows less than 50 percent of those surveyed said they would be comfortable with a Mormon running for president.

Evangelicals, fundamentalists and other traditional-leaning Christians widely consider the LDS Church not to be a Christian body — claiming it either denies or unrecognizably redefines such Christian doctrines as the Trinity, original sin, the atonement, the continuity of the church and the canon of Scripture.

Denouncing Mormonism is a staple of some Christian TV and radio networks.

The poll results and the firmly held doctrinal differences help explain why Mr. Romney kicked off his 2012 bid at a farm Thursday in New Hampshire, where the libertarian-leaning electorate is more interested in a candidate’s credentials as a fiscal conservative than as a social conservative.

“I would hazard a guess that there is no state in the country where Republicans are more fixed in on the debt and deficit,” said Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire.

In 2008, Mr. Romney’s Mormonism was a frequent topic among evangelicals and other religious conservatives, who peppered him with questions about whether he shared their religious views.

He deflected those questions by delivering a “Faith in America” speech that touched on religious liberty and tolerance and on how his religion would and would not guide his presidency.

This time, his camp appears to be banking on the notion that his religion will be less exotic this time and that voter angst over the nation’s fiscal health will push people to Mr. Romney, who received a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard, balanced budgets in Massachusetts, and saved the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

Meanwhile, Mr. Huntsman has said he does not expect Mormonism to become an issue but has drawn criticism for describing his religion as “hard to define.”

Mark DeMoss, a well-connected figure in the evangelical community and a Romney supporter, said he thinks “the economy is in such a bad place that the faith of a candidate I think is diminished a little bit in importance” in the 2012 election.

But Mr. DeMoss also recognizes that some evangelicals will “automatically be more comfortable” with a candidate who shares their religion, such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“I think that’s unfortunate, and I think it’s a superficial approach to a very important matter — but it is a reality,” he said. “I don’t subscribe to that school of thought.”

Mr. DeMoss is challenging evangelical friends and religious leaders to reconsider Mr. Romney, urging them to look past his church’s theology and take into account who is most capable of winning the nomination, raising the funds necessary to defeat President Obama in the general election, and governing as commander in chief.
“My pastor shares all of my beliefs in theology, but I don’t want him to be president,” he said.

Ralph E. Reed Jr., who founded the FFC, which is putting on this weekend’s values conference, told The Times that Mr. Romney largely answered questions about his religious beliefs in the last campaign, including his well-documented shift from pro-choice to pro-life.

“Given the fact that Ronald Reagan became pro-life and George H.W. Bush became pro-life, and there certainly have been an awful lot of other people who we helped elect who were pro-choice and became pro-life that I tend to think that is not going to be as big an issue for Romney this time around,” said Mr. Reed, who is best known as the first executive director of the Christian Coalition in the 1990s.

“I think he is much more likely to have to answer questions about Massachusetts health care now than answer questions about his religious beliefs or whether he is genuinely pro-life,” he said.

Whatever the case, Mr. Crosby credits Mr. Romney with embracing, rather than running away from, his Mormon roots. That steadfastness, he says, may not pay off with a victory in the 2012 election, but it has helped erase some of the misguided notions about his religion.

“I see the potential success here is in a broader, longer perspective,” he said. “Within a decade or two, it will be a nonissue to have a Mormon running for president.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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