Mormon faith may have helped, not hurt, Romney
Fears of anti-LDS surge sinking Republican's bid evaporated during run.
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Washington • Mitt Romney's Mormon faith was supposed to haunt his campaign, hurt his efforts among evangelical voters and give enough pause to independents that his quest for the White House would be difficult, if not doomed.

But, in the end, concerns about his LDS religion barely surfaced in the general election and, in fact, Romney's embrace of his leadership roles in the faith in the final months of the campaign may have boosted his effort.

"I think it was one of the most helpful things he said during any time of the campaign," says Bruce Gronbeck, a University of Iowa professor emeritus of political communication who now lives in Longmont, Colo. "That's not to say [religion] was a primary issue, but it was an underlying base for his appeal to a broad range of the electorate."

The proof? Romney could be on track to gain more votes from evangelical Protestants than Sen. John McCain did in 2008 and on par with those won by President George W. Bush in 2004.

About 76 percent of white evangelical Protestants are leaning toward Romney, according to a recent poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. McCain drew 73 percent of that vote last time around.

The numbers don't surprise Mark DeMoss, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign who has been an unofficial outreach guru for evangelicals.

"I have spent much of the past six years talking to people — largely evangelical audiences — about the importance of looking for candidates who share my values, even if they don't share my theology," DeMoss told The Salt Lake Tribune. "While many people still, apparently, look for candidates of common faith ... during the presidential primaries, most seem to be comfortable aligning with the candidate who best reflects and represents their values in the general election."

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Utahns' view • In Utah, where the populace is much more sensitive to the impacts Romney's faith has on the election, a new Tribune poll shows that LDS voters polled are split on whether Romney's faith was a good or bad thing for his bid. Thirty-one percent say it was a positive, 33 percent saw it as negative and 32 percent believe it had no effect.

There was no such split among Utahns who said they weren't Mormon, with 39 percent pegging Romney's faith as a positive for his bid and 9 percent suggesting it was a negative.

Overall, about 33 percent of Utah voters polled said Romney's faith was a good thing for his race while some 26 percent saw it as a negative.

Rebecca Buck, a homemaker in the northern Utah town of Hooper, agrees that his Mormon faith helped, rather than hurt, Romney.

The attention on that aspect of his life helped bring out "the things that kind of make him a person" — and illuminated him as a good, honest family man, she says.

But Dee Brown, of Kaysville, says he didn't see Romney's faith playing much of a role in this year's campaign.

"This time I didn't hear much about it," says Brown, a Mormon and retired schoolteacher who has already cast his ballot for Romney. "The church had a negative history back in the early days and [that perception] may have hung on in certain areas. [But] It seems to have died down."

The fear early on was that Romney's membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would undermine his presidential bid, which was the same concern raised in his 2008 attempt.

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Mormon hurdle • In his first run at the White House, Romney felt strongly enough that his faith — unknown or misunderstood by many Americans — would be a hindrance to his campaign that he scheduled an address to grapple with the concern.

Only mentioning the word Mormon once, Romney explained in the 2007 speech that his church would not dictate to him, just as the Catholic Church had not given orders to President John F. Kennedy a half century earlier.

Within days of the speech, rival Republican Mike Huckabee asked a reporter a controversial question about the LDS faithful: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"

Even this time around, Southern Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress attacked Romney's faith at a conservative gathering, calling the LDS Church a "cult" and charging that Romney "is not a Christian."

After Romney won the GOP nomination, both men abandoned their criticisms, with Jeffress offering his endorsement of Romney and Huckabee speaking on his behalf at the Republican National Convention.

"Let me say to you tonight, I care far less as to where Mitt Romney takes his family to church," Huckabee said, "than I do about where he takes this country."

It was that night at the convention where Romney's Mormon faith was thrust into the spotlight. The Republican candidate invited several members of his Belmont, Mass., LDS ward to speak about his time as their Mormon bishop.

"You cannot measure a man's character based on words he utters before adoring crowds during happy times," said Ted Oparowski, who tearfully told of Romney's help for their late son, David. "The true measure of a man is revealed in his actions during times of trouble, the quiet hospital room of a dying boy, with no cameras and no reporters — that is the time to make an assessment."

Since then, Romney has openly talked about being a "pastor" — his way of identifying his time as a Mormon bishop for those unfamiliar with LDS lay leadership roles — including a mention in one of the presidential debates.

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Human side • For a candidate who has been panned for looking and acting too plastic, the religious vignettes were meant to humanize Romney, and also endear him to the churchgoing folks who make up a good number of Republican and independent voters.

"That was one of the surprises of the campaign," says Gary Marx, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, "that [Romney] found a way to proactively share that part where people connected with him from a character perspective as a way that anybody who is a churchgoing person connects to their experience as a church member."

Marx says hesitancy about Romney's faith evaporated because Americans got to know the candidate and saw a connection through shared values, and because he was able to draw on his time as a lay religious leader to tie it together.

"He's going to win, I believe, more of the evangelical vote than any other Republican ticket in history and the great irony is this is the first Republican ticket that doesn't have [a Protestant] on it," Marx says of Romney and his Catholic running mate, Paul Ryan.

There's ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that being a Mormon wasn't problematic for Romney, says Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta.

"Romney's strongest support in the entire nation is from white evangelical Protestants," Black says. "It's not a concern at all."

Evangelist Billy Graham all but endorsed Romney after a meeting between the two last month.

"I'll do all I can to help you," Graham said at the time. "And you can quote me on that."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, had predicted earlier this year that President Barack Obama's campaign would attack Romney's Mormon faith; that didn't happen and one of Obama's top aides, David Axelrod, swore off making Mormonism an issue in the race.

Romney did benefit from several news stories delving into his time as an LDS lay leader and his time serving a Mormon mission in France.

Some believe that four years after the nation elected its first black president, conventional concerns about faith in politics may also be upended.

"I'm optimistic," says former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen, "that just like Barack Obama's election has really put a lot of racial questions in America's past and in America's history that this election will hopefully put questions of faith [to rest] as something that used to be a factor in campaigns and then cease to be."

tburr@sltrib.com