WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney took a hard line against polygamy when asked about it in a television interview earlier this year. Like his church, the Mormon politician is against it.
"My church has long ago given up that practice in the 1800s, but putting that aside for a moment, it's real clear that Americans, myself included, believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman and not more than that, and also not same sex couples," Romney told MSNBC's "Hardball" host Chris Matthews.
Romney, of course, didn't mention that about the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced polygamy in 1890, his great-grandfather was among those Mormons who fled to Mexico to start their own community where plural marriage continued to be practiced.
As the Massachusetts Republican governor ascends into the elite ranks bidding for the presidency in 2008, the public interest in every aspect of his life - including his family history - will undoubtedly become more intense. Everyone will want to know what's in the Romney closet. Many Americans still associate Mormons with multiple wives. That stereotype has long been battled by the faith that now claims more than 12 million members worldwide. But it has been reinforced of late with the HBO show "Big Love," about a Salt Lake Valley man with three wives, and with the elevation of fundamentalist Utah polygamist Warren Jeffs to the FBI's Top 10 Most Wanted list.
Romney is a confirmed monogamist of nearly four decades and polygamy has been absent from his family going back two generations. But, like many Mormons whose pioneer ancestors trekked the Midwest to settle in Utah, Romney's family tree is rife with polygamists on the paternal side. Two great-great grandfathers, for example, had more than 10 wives each.
There is no indication of polygamy on the maternal side of the family.
Several newspapers have already mentioned that Romney's great-grandfather had five wives.
Political scientists and conservative observers say that despite an ancestry exotic - or stigmatized - to most Americans, the polygamy factor won't play in the election.
"I don't think any American would hold someone's ancestors against them," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a well-connected Republican operative. "They can hardly blame you for something they did. It certainly isn't your responsibility what your granddad did."
Polygamous past: Mormon Church-founder Joseph Smith said he had received a revelation from God that men were encouraged to have multiple wives.
The doctrine was a return to a practice predating Jesus Christ. Not all Mormon men took multiple brides, but many did. Smith is thought to have had as many as 29 wives at one point.
Mitt Romney's ancestors converted to Mormonism as the church was starting to spread in the 1830s and 40s. His great-great grandfather, Miles Romney, eventually took on 13 wives, including the niece with the same name of his first wife, Elizabeth Gaskell.
In all, Romney's family tree harbors six polygamous men with 41 wives, according to research by The Salt Lake Tribune. Having several polygamous ancestors is common for multigeneration Mormons, says Kathleen Hinckley, executive director of the Colorado-based Association of Professional Genealogists, who verified The Tribune's research.
Romney's great-great grandfather on his paternal grandmother's side is a famous Mormon from the settling of the western realm of Deseret (part of which later became Utah), where followers fled in the 1800s to escape anti-Mormon persecution fueled, in part, by opposition to polygamy.
Parley P. Pratt was one of the influential LDS Church leaders during the early years. He married 12 times, though his first wife died before he took a second. A former husband of one of his plural wives eventually killed Pratt.
When Congress started cracking down on polygamy, Miles Park Romney (Mitt Romney's great-grandfather) and many other families moved to Mexico and began their own settlement.
"Harassed, hunted and persecuted because of their practice of plural marriage, a band of faithful Saints left the United States with mixed emotions on 5 March 1885 and crossed the border into Mexico, seeking refuge and the right to live their religion in peace," according to the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History.
Miles Park Romney took five brides, though one left him and the church. According to an American Heritage magazine story in 1964, he married one woman, Millie Eyring Snow, after the LDS Church's 1890 "manifesto" renouncing polygamy. The two never had any children.
Mitt Romney's paternal grandfather did not practice polygamy, and neither did the governor's father, George Wilcken Romney, who was born in 1907 in the Mexican colony but moved to the United States when he was 5 years old during the Mexican Revolution.
George W. Romney eventually became president of American Motors, then governor of Michigan and for a short time was a top-tier Republican candidate for president. Though the Constitution bans those who are not natural U.S. citizens to run for president, George W. Romney was able to seek the office because he was born to two U.S. citizens.
In George W. Romney's case, polygamy wasn't a factor in the campaign, and his Mormon religion wasn't raised much either, according to Bill Ballenger, a longtime observer of Michigan politics who runs a political newsletter called Inside Michigan.
Likewise, Ballenger doubts Mitt Romney's polygamous heritage will register.
"Within the Republican primary, when you get into South Carolina, God knows if polygamist roots will hurt him," Ballenger says. "Maybe something like that would cost him enough votes. [But] maybe I'm being too reasonable, I find it hard to believe that will be much of an issue."
Ballenger's belief is echoed by Brookings Institute senior fellow Stephen Hess, who wrote a book called The Republican Establishment during the time George W. Romney was bidding for the presidency. Polygamy wasn't an issue because there were more pressing concerns then, such as the Vietnam War, he says.
"It didn't come up for the same reason I don't think it will come up if Mitt Romney runs: it's just ancient history," Hess says.
Polygamy and politics: Most politicians from Utah come from polygamous stock, including former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is now secretary of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. So, too does Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador; Sen. Orrin Hatch; and rumored-to-be-aspiring politician Steve Young, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and descendant of Brigham Young, the Mormon church president after Joseph Smith who led the church to Utah.
The only time polygamous ancestry caused a problem for these notables was when Leavitt, as Utah governor, suggested plural marriage was constitutionally protected, making national headlines. He fairly quickly backpedaled and the gaffe was all but forgotten by the time he was drafted into the Bush administration.
Asked to respond about Mitt Romney's position on polygamy, Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom issued a two-line response: "Governor Romney has been married to the same woman for 37 years, and they've raised five children and 10 grandchildren. As far as the history of the Mormon church goes, I would refer you to the historians."
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2004 pushing for a Constitutional definition of marriage, Romney also publicly went on record objecting to polygamy.
"I would note that it's not unprecedented for the federal government to have a say in what happens in states as it relates to marriage," Romney said. "There was a long time ago a state that considered the practice of polygamy. And as I recall, the federal government correctly stepped in and said that is not something the states should decide."
Those kind of statements have a two-prong result: establishing Romney's position against polygamy and polishing his conservative credentials.
Romney still faces an uphill battle to attract evangelicals to support him, especially given the anti-Mormon sentiment in parts of the South. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, has Mormons on the top of its list of "major cults and sects in North America."
But Kenyn M. Cureton, vice president for convention relations, doubts polygamy will be a factor in whether evangelicals vote for Romney.
"I would say that most Southern Baptists will look at his own practice and not evaluate him based on what his ancestors did or did not do," Cureton said.
Ted G. Jelen, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who authored Religion and Political Behavior in the United States, says polygamy may be written about in the blogosphere of cyberspace or mentioned in some circles, but that other concerns about Mormons will trump the issue.
"My best guess, it won't matter as much as the general anti-Mormon fervor that exists out there," Jelen said.
Several polls have shown that a segment of voters have an aversion to voting for Mormons, including a recent Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll showing 37 percent of voters wouldn't cast a ballot for a Mormon candidate. A Zogby International poll in 1999 found that 17 percent of Americans wouldn't vote for a Mormon.
But pollster John Zogby says Mitt Romney has proven himself to be quick on his feet and has used humor to distance himself from polygamous LDS Church history.
In a St. Patrick's Day speech in Boston last year, Romney told the audience that "I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman."
"What he has shown to be is someone with a sense of humor," Zogby says of Romney. "In that sense, it's that cross between self-deprecation and taking what ought to be a not-so-serious issue and turning it into some ridicule that determines whether a candidate wins a bond with voters."
Mitt Romney's ancestors won't determine his political destiny, Zogby adds.
"He's not a polygamist," he says. "This is not your grandfather's Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."