"If there's a Manchurian candidate being offered here, that's a problem," Sabato said.
The Boston Globe reported Thursday that supporters for Romney and church leaders had proposed building a nationwide network of Mormons, starting with alumni of Brigham Young University, to help advance his likely presidential bid.
The effort was dubbed the Mutual Values and Priorities program - or MVP, the Globe said, and, citing documents, the paper added that LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was made aware of the effort and "expressed no opposition."
The revelation - while denied as a synchronized campaign by Romney and the church - again raises the specter that Romney's LDS membership could doom his campaign, especially with evangelical voters essential to winning the GOP nomination.
The article also raised a question about whether any political collaboration may have violated IRS rules against tax-exempt organizations supporting candidates.
Jared Young, a spokesman for Romney's Commonwealth PAC, vehemently denied the PAC is working with the church and said a Sept. 19 meeting between staffers and an LDS official in the church's Salt Lake City headquarters was to ensure there were "parameters" set to avoid any implication the church was backing Romney.
"There is no coordination between Governor Romney's Commonwealth PAC and the church," Young said. "That would be illegal for both parties to do that."
LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson said the Sept. 19 meeting first reported by the Globe was purely "a handshake and a chat - literally a courtesy call."
Otterson offered an "emphatic no" to a question of whether Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, a top church governing body, had agreed to help Romney's potential campaign. And he disagreed with the Globe report that Hinckley was aware of any discussion between Romney supporters and Holland.
"To characterize it as 'the effort to help Romney' as if that's a fact is completely wrong," Otterson said in a statement. In meeting with Romney supporters - including Holland's neighbor and Romney friend Kem Gardner - "Elder Holland re-emphasized the church's political neutrality rules."
However, the reports of church-campaign coordination could fan anti-Mormon feelings with many evangelical groups, some of whom view the LDS Church as a cult.
"This is just what the Southern Baptists and others need to bash the [LDS] church," said Tony Kimball, a retired professor of American government at Bentley College in the Boston area.
"They are hostile to the church anyway. If they see Mitt's campaign as a Mormon campaign, that's going to drive them into a frenzy," said Kimball, who is LDS.
The Globe in Thursday's editions reported that Holland suggested using the alumni association of Brigham Young University's business school as the start for a support web across the country. Romney is a graduate of BYU, which is owned by the LDS Church.
Ned Hill, dean of BYU's Marriott School of Management, and Steve Albrecht, an associate dean, sent an e-mail to members of the alumni association from their school accounts seeking volunteers to support Romney's organization, the Globe reported.
BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins says the university did not approve the e-mail and the two have been asked to cease any similar communication in the future. The school has a policy of "political neutrality," she said, noting that an alumnus complained about the initial e-mail.
Though Romney's campaign went on the defensive Thursday, charging there was no coordinated effort, the report revives a recurring concern - that Romney's Mormon faith will be the biggest hindrance to his campaign.
John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, faced a similar hurdle when he made his bid for the presidency in 1960, and had to assure voters that the Vatican would not be directing his actions. Political strategists have suggested Romney needs to make a similar speech, but news about consultation with the LDS Church could trump such efforts.
"He has got to be open, consistently about this," says Sabato. "There are many suspicions even within the Republican Party about the Mormon church. Romney either comes to terms with it or he doesn't."
But with the midterm elections only three weeks away, the war in Iraq turning more deadly and a congressional page scandal investigation under way, George Washington University's Leo Ribuffo says the story about potential church involvement won't get much traction with voters.
"At this point, hardly anybody is going to notice, except for reporters and political junkies," says Ribuffo, a professor of history with an expertise in presidential politics and religion.
"Down the line it might become an issue," he adds, but it's unlikely now.
This is not the first time Romney has faced criticism for being too close to the LDS Church, which had a hand in hiring Romney to take over the then-scandal plagued 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Romney used that position as a launching point to become governor and has repeatedly cited it in stump speeches in gearing up for the potential White House race.
At the time, then-Gov. Mike Leavitt, also a Mormon, asked Elder Robert Hales, a church apostle, "for a short list of names - people who could possibly do what was needed to re-establish confidence and handle the extraordinary challenge of staging the Olympic Games," the church said in a statement to The Tribune in 2001. Romney's name was one of three suggested.
The LDS Church - while adamantly opposing labels such as the "Mormon Games" - used the Olympics as a way to market the faith, sending packets to journalists far and wide proposing story ideas and offering media tours.
* Tribune reporter LINDA FANTIN contributed to this story.